Biotech corn gets state's approval

French company plans crop in Phillips County
By Karen Auge, Denver Post Medical Writer

A French company can grow the state's first produce destined for the medicine cabinet - a test crop of pharmaceutical corn - on 30 acres somewhere in Phillips County, the state Agriculture Department decided Wednesday.

The recommendation, by a three-member review panel, paves the way for Meristem Therapeutics to plant genetically modified corn in far northeast Colorado.

It comes despite objections from some farmers and environmental groups who worry the corn will contaminate other crops.

The corn will contain a protein, lipase, that will be used in an experimental drug researchers hope will help patients with cystic fibrosis.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture gave preliminary approval to Meristem's plans this spring. The state technically could not have blocked the planting after the federal agency approved it. But the state could, and did, add conditions before giving its blessing.

The state is insisting that its inspectors be allowed to accompany USDA officials on visits to the site. The state also wants to be allowed to visit the cornfield without advanced warning.

"I'm convinced that production of pharmaceuticals using biotechnology can be accomplished in Colorado safely and without threat to our agricultural markets or to the consumer of our food products," said Don Ament, the state's agriculture commissioner.

But ever since the company filed its application with the state last month, the prospect of a "biopharm" cornfield rising out of northeastern Colorado soil has pitted the state's agricultural powerhouses against each other and made strange bedfellows of traditional and organic farmers and environmental groups that oppose the idea.

Opponents charge that Colorado doesn't have any procedure for evaluating the safety or potential risks of biopharm crops, and that the crops will contaminate the environment and possibly other crops.

"What we're asking for is a moratorium on biopharm crops until an open and public process can determine that they're safe," Peter Crowell of the Western Colorado Congress said Wednesday before the approval was announced. "We're not saying we want a ban."

But those backing Meristem's plans say biopharms could spark Colorado's sputtering economy.

The biopharm industry is ready to explode, said Jared Fiel of Colorado Corn, which represents many of the growers who produced more than 1.1 million acres of corn in Colorado in 2000. "Colorado could be the Silicon Valley in that process," Fiel said.

Officials at Meristem, which has offices in Massachusetts, did not respond to request for comment. The company has not publicly disclosed the exact location of the acres it is leasing, citing fears of vandalism.

The USDA requires a 1-mile buffer between pharmaceutical corn and the nearest field of ordinary corn.

That's small comfort, opponents say.

"We've been having mud rains out here this spring," Crowell said. "We have quite a few organic farmers in the valley. Think about what happens if we have a mud rain and that corn gets contaminated."

Many of the opponents' concerns stem from problems in other states. Last year, 50,000 bushels of soybeans had to be destroyed in Nebraska after they were contaminated by pharmaceutical corn. And the USDA ordered 155 acres of corn in Iowa incinerated because pollen from genetically altered corn had drifted into nearby fields.

But Meristem has told the state that the corn it plants will be "sterilized," so the pharmaceutical seed cannot spread to neighboring cornfields.

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