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September 23, 2006 - Capital Press (OR)

Farming For Life, Or Pharmed To Death?

By Angela Eckhardt

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What role should farmers play in medicine? That's a good question to consider as the biotech "pharming" industry develops.

If it weren't for America's foolhardy War on Drugs, there would be no question at all. For eons, herbs have been successfully cultivated for a wide variety of medicinal uses.

The line between farmer and healer -- or shaman -- should be blurry. More than any other factor, what defines the traditional farmer is not the size of his land, but his role in life and death.

Prior to the advent of biotech seeds, artificial insemination and rules preventing on-farm processing, farmers had a hand in the entire life cycle and a front-row view of life's lessons.

Woe to the farmer who fails to learn respect, who misses how the one life is connected to the whole of life. Where once he might have felt like a God of creation, he'll soon be humbled by the spread of disease and infertility across the land. And once death is advancing -- on his own farm, in his body, his family, his country or the world -- what is the farmer to do? What kind of medicine should he practice?

In "Epidemics, Bk. I, Sect. XI," Hippocrates offers advice that's more to the point than either the original or modern versions of the Hippocratic Oath:

"Declare the past, diagnose the present, foretell the future; practice these acts. As to diseases, make a habit of two things: to help - or at least to do no harm."

Traditional farm-medicine wisdom might then go like this: Life has not been respected. Disease is rampant. Infertility will spread unless we support life by growing healthy things and stop poisoning life.

From this vantage, biotech pharming is exactly the wrong prescription.

Biologics, which describes a class of drugs derived from biological material, makes up a growing percentage of pharmaceuticals. Currently they are produced through genetically engineered animals, but the expense and inefficiency of this production method has spawned plant-derived biologics instead.

In "Biohazards: The Next Generation? Genetically Engineering Crop Plants That Manufacture Industrial and Pharmaceutical Proteins," Brian Tokar says concerns go beyond the familiar cross-pollination issues: "We may soon see biologically active enzymes and pharmaceuticals, usually only found in nature in minute quantities - and usually biochemically sequestered in very specialized regions of living tissues and cells - secreted by plant tissues on a massive commercial scale."

By now we have an all-too-long list of failures to contain genetically engineered crops. And though plant-derived pharmaceuticals aren't even on the market yet, their containment is already a problem.

In 2002, ProdiGene's pharma-corn, containing an experimental pig vaccine, contaminated soybeans in Iowa and Nebraska. New regulations were then put in place, prompting Monsanto to announce its departure from the biopharming industry.

Then just last summer, Monsanto subsidiary Calgene received a patent for technology that allows the production of human biological proteins from the plant plastid. According to investors, the genes expressed in plastids "are not pollen disseminated" and therefore would not pose cross-pollination risks. But that assertion, too, is a matter of great debate.

Controlled Pharming Ventures is now biopharming a 60-mile mine in Indiana, also with the hope that underground containment might allow the industry to bypass regulatory hurdles and appease a concerned public.

Traditional farmers might contend that all these pharmaceuticals would not be needed in the first place if there were not so many toxins intentionally put into our air, soil, water and food.

I'd go a step further. Drug prohibition has allowed the lucrative pharmaceutical industry to flourish while biotech corporations try to dangerously re-engineer and patent natural medicinals in the hopes of selling once-free life forms back to the by-now desperately unhealthy and drug-addicted consumers.

Yes, farmers should certainly play a renewed role in medicine. But they should farm for life, not pharm us to death.

The author writes on freedom and farming issues from her home in Lostine, Ore. Her web site is

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