WHY CORN WON'T BE THE CROP OF CHOICE FOR PLANT-RAISED MEDICINES

YOU MIGHT have read reports that plant-raised pharmaceuticals will be a market worth $2.2 billion by 2011. But when farm publications publish these reports, they usually don't mention that the profits aren't likely to go to Iowa corn farmers.

Joseph Burris, an emeritus professor of seed science at Iowa State who now owns his own gene containment consulting company, explains why: “We used to think a buffer zone of one mile between pharma corn and conventional corn was adequate to prevent airborne pollen contamination so as to reassure the public and USDA that drug-producing genes aren't going to end up in corn flakes. But now the standard is 30 miles. You won't find anyplace in the Corn Belt that will accommodate those isolation standards.”

Burris also points to the high investment required. “Even if you find irrigated land in Arizona, standards for production are strict. Every kernel must be accounted for, and you need dedicated machinery. That planter or combine can't be used for anything else.”

Antony Blanc, head of Syngenta biopharma in Switzerland, also doubts corn is the future of pharmaceutical products. “We do believe that innovative plant-made pharmaceuticals [PMPs] will provide great benefits for patients who need new medicines,” Blanc says. “But corn farmers shouldn't count on producing these products in corn. Other crops are as well if not better suited for production of biopharmaceuticals. Syngenta has a program with safflower, for example. This low-acreage, niche oil- and birdseed crop grows well in remote, arid regions and is grown only on contract, making its credible isolation much simpler.”

Syngenta is in step with an industrywide move away from using major food crops for pharmaceutical production. Blanc says the main reason the first trials with PMPs used corn or tobacco was because these were the workhorses of early plant biotechnology. The industry began with what it knew best and has now moved on.

Corn growers shouldn't be too disappointed. Blanc says even a blockbuster drug would require, at most, between 500 and 3,000 acres to fulfill worldwide needs — not nearly enough to transform Iowa's economic landscape.