Biotech Briefing

To induce consumers to buy their products and farmers to test and grow them, biotechnology marketers often look to economically distressed, vulnerable populations, like India’s and Zimbabwe’s — or even Kentucky’s.
But in Zambia and Zimbabwe, whose severely malnourished populations depend on food aid, governments have rejected shipments of genetically engineered (GE) whole-grain corn. They fear that the corn, if planted rather than eaten, could grow to contaminate the countries’ own natural stock, jeopardizing exports to the European Union. Widely reported this summer, the moves were seen as a statement of self-determination.
“This is a consistent line that the Zimbabwean government has taken on [GE] crops,” Raj Patel of the Oakland-based nonprofit Food First told Terrain. “Monsanto tried in 1997 or 1998 to do field trials [of GE crops] without telling the Zimbabwean government, and they got soundly rapped over the knuckles for it.”
In Kentucky, tobacco farmers are balking out of similar wariness. Though they are not starving, the farmers are losing money growing tobacco, as the industry reels from huge cash settlements over liability for smoking’s health effects. Following one such 1999 settlement, the state of Kentucky itself got nearly $3.5 billion. Half of that has been earmarked for agricultural development. Kentucky Governor Paul Patton has been pushing to use some of those funds to attract biotech companies — specifically for biopharmaceutical crops, especially tobacco.
In biopharming, companies genetically manipulate crops like corn and tobacco, seeking to reliably produce proteins useful for medical or industrial products. Farmers, accustomed to ridiculously low commodity prices, suddenly can grow much more profitable crops.
But when the state’s 118 counties set spending priorities for the settlement funds over the past year, only seven chose biotechnology.
Bill Freese, a researcher with Friends of the Earth, points out that open field-testing of bioengineered medical crops poses major risks: Traditional food crops or wild plants could be contaminated. The GE crops’ pollen could carry anything from the allergen trypsin — which has been engineered into corn — to trichosanthin, an abortion-inducing protein introduced into tobacco using a virus that can also infect tomatoes and peppers.
But that’s not the only reason farmers are balking.
“Farmers don’t want to see the tobacco settlement money going to biotechnology,” said Alysia Robben, a researcher with the Frankfort, Kentucky–based Community Farm Alliance, “because they see it as going to corporations and not to farmers.”
The first biotech company to receive state funding is a Louisville-based firm, ApoImmune, working to engineer a cancer drug into tobacco.
“If that protein works out,” Robben says, “they are going to want to produce it consistently, and year-round. I don’t see how that is going to get grown in the fields of small farmers, where you just can’t control all the variables. That’s going to happen in a greenhouse of a major pharmaceutical company.”
Nor was the irony of developing a cancer drug lost on Robben: “growing something in tobacco that cures the problem of tobacco.”
Tribby Vice, who is chairman of Fleming County’s agricultural council and a dairy and vegetable farmer with 520 acres in the northeastern part of the state, told Terrain he was “just a little bit leery of having biotech kind of crammed down our throats. We’ve been around long enough to see how the pharmaceutical industry manipulates its suppliers. We’d really just rather concentrate on ideas that we have come up with, on things that we’ve already done.”
In India, where farmers have stiffly resisted corporate biotechnology for years, a similar sentiment has produced a novel solution: an indigenous seedbank to support sustainable, locally focused agriculture. In September, several thousand farmers gathered in a village in the state of Karnataka. There, 97 small farmers had given their land, a collective 100 acres, to a new center for sustainable agriculture, with educational programs, a school of civil disobedience, and a seed-bank to collect and maintain India’s indigenous and traditional seeds.
Co-founder Professor M.D. Nanjundaswamy told Terrain that the center, called Amrita Bhoomi, or The Eternal Planet, is the culmination of a decade-long Seed Satyagraha. Created by 500,000 farmers converging on Bangalore in 1993, the Satyagraha, or “soul force,” favors community control of food sources and strongly opposes the patenting of organisms. “Seed Satyagraha,” as Nanjundaswamy put it, “is a continuous non-violent battle against intellectual property rights in agriculture.”
In Kentucky, the farmers can identify.
“What we like to see [the settlement money] go to,” Robben said, “are some obvious things: farmers’ markets, anything that pushes toward a local food economy — tobacco farmers going into vegetables.”

Comments are closed.