Instead of punishing biopharming to the point of oblivion, we must reject the zero-tolerance mentality and approach safety scientifically and sensibly.
In 2002, the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) and several member companies came out strongly for stringent regulatory oversight of biopharming and agreed to voluntary but draconian restrictions on biopharmed plants.
Such occurrences should be uncommon with biopharming because, most often, the added drug-producing gene should not confer on the recipient any selective advantage and could even place it at a selective disadvantage.
Except for extraordinary circumstances (for example, biopharming of an extremely potent toxin), there is no scientific justification for the kind of rigorous oversight that USDA imposes on biopharmers today.
The testing and commercialization of gene-spliced plants are overregulated generally, and it is much too easy for antagonists of biopharming to frighten consumers with images of hazardous drugs floating in children's breakfast cereals while scientists invariably are careful to qualify their own statements and to refrain from blanket assurances that something is "safe.
These pressure groups want food plants to be off limits for biopharming, land once used to grow drug-producing crops to be dedicated solely to that purpose, and biopharmers to be indemnified against any damages they might cause under whatever scenarios their adversaries may dream up.
As a result, calls for limits on biopharming are often met with cries of "no way" from farm-state politicians.
In December, after the Nebraska and Iowa incidents, the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) backed off a proposal to temporarily stop growing GE drug- and chemical-producing crops in major corn-growing states after the plan encountered noisy opposition from Iowa's Democratic Governor, Tom Vilsack, and other farm-state politicians, who still see biopharming as a boon.
The USDA continues to hail GE crops as a boon for farmers, gleefully promoting biopharming with a website that features such headers as: "Animal Urine--A New Source of `Pharmed' Medicine?
Part of the problem, according to Jean Halloran, who directs Consumers Union's Consumer Policy Institute, is that technological advances have outpaced not just regulations but basic questions of whether biopharming should be allowed at all.
At the same time, however, farm groups allied with agribusiness--chief among them the American Farm Bureau Federation--issued a statement reaffirming their faith in biotech crops and essentially asking federal officials to continue encouraging biopharming.
Harl, who has served on the USDA's Advisory Committee on Agricultural Biotechnology, says federal agencies are going to have to fundamentally alter their approach to biopharming.