A question that is always asked—or should always be asked—about any new technology is whether that technology will have any impact on the earth's ecosystems and creatures. In this case, could plant-grown drugs and chemicals harm the environment?
It's important to remember that farm fields do not have some invisible shield over them. They are in nature, and they share their space with animals, insects, and soil organisms, all of which can potentially be affected by chemicals in biopharmed crops. Animals and insects can also transport pollen and seeds from biopharmed plants.
Some biopharm plants are extremely potent, and are active at billionths of a gram. None have been approved for human consumption. According to Dr. Glynis Giddings et al.:
"Biopharmaceuticals usually elicit responses at low concentrations, and may be toxic at higher ones. Many have physiochemical properties that might cause them to persist in the environment or bioaccumulate in living organisms, possibly damaging non-target organisms..."
Open-air field testing of biopharm crops has been done in many US states, with Nebraska and Hawaii having the most sites. The wildlife, farms and residents of Hawaii are particularly vulnerable to contamination because the islands are home to more than one third of all US endangered species—more per square mile than anywhere else on earth—and farming takes place close to sensitive wildlife areas and population centers.
A 2002 study by the National Academy of Sciences found the environmental impacts of biopharm agriculture cannot be predicted and that the novel compounds being produced by these plants may contaminate human and animal food supplies. In March of 2003, USDA announced it would increase buffer zones between biopharm crops and other food or livestock crops from one-half mile to one mile. This would still appear to be grossly inadequate—in 2004, pollen from a genetically engineered grass crop was found to have traveled 13 miles (21 km) from the test plot.
But Aren't Biopharm Crops Regulated?
In the United States, USDA has primary authority for experimental biopharm crop cultivation. Do USDA rules ensure that it's all being done in a safe manner? Hmm. Consider the following.
USDA's "gene confinement measures" are intended to minimize rather than prevent contamination of food crops with biopharm crops. The few environmental assessments conducted by USDA are of poor quality and show a disturbing willingness to bend the rules to the likes of the biopharming corporations. For instance, a trial of alfalfa engineered with industrial enzymes was allowed to proceed despite the presence of non-GE alfalfa within 200 yards of the test site—less than the accepted isolation distance. USDA approved the field trial plan over the objections of the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture.
Genetically engineered crops in general have been found to contaminate non-GE food crops. In the StarLink fiasco, genetically engineered corn that was not approved for human consumption ended up in dozens of products on supermarket shelves that had to be recalled. Even more relevant here is that fact that potentially disastrous slip-ups in biopharm field tests have already occurred. USDA has twice cited ProdiGene twice for allowing biopharm crops to contaminate food crops. In one case, USDA quarantined and destroyed 500,000 bushels of Nebraska soybeans meant for human consumption because the crop had been contaminated with corn engineered to produce a pig vaccine. Similarly, potential contamination led to the destruction of 155 acres of conventional corn in Iowa.
Even if USDA biopharming regulations were adequate to protect the food supply from biopharm contamination, would they be followed? When it comes to GE crops in general, protocols have often been flouted. Dow AgroSciences and Pioneer Hi-Bred International have both been fined for increasing the risk of cross-breeding (contamination) by not complying with USDA permits in tests of (non-biopharm) genetically engineered corn in Hawaii. Growers of genetically engineered Bt crops have been regularly found to be non-compliant with their resistance management plans.