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Run! The Pharmers Are Coming!
by John Harmon
March 23, 2003

jhgun.jpg (14871 bytes)This week the weather has turned back to more spring like and that helps get a gardener thinking about spring planting. I had a friend ask me about tomatoes that he saved seed from last year. He wanted to know if he had any chance of getting the same tomatoes this year. The variety was "Quest" which is a hybrid greenhouse tomato. I had to tell him that his chances are slim.

Hybrid plants are bred by crossing two or more different varieties of the same plant. You would have a better chance of winning the lottery than you would of the saved seeds from a hybrid plant breeding true the next season. Especially since many varieties these days are bred from three or more crosses. The number of crosses and the varieties used are very closely guarded secrets. The breeders, of course, want you to buy seed from them every year so don't reveal what varieties they use for breeding. You might still get a good plant from the seeds you saved from the hybrid but it's not likely to be as good or as vigorous as the original.

Cross breeding used to be the only way to get new varieties. That is not the case in this day and age of super science. With plants being genetically altered on a regular basis and that technology being readily available and fairly simple most anyone who wants to can splice a gene. You can actually buy a device called a gene gun to do the job. It was developed in the 1980's by a couple of guys from Cornell University at the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station in Geneva, N.Y.

Horticultural scientists John Sanford and Theodore Klein at the Geneva Station sought the assistance of the Nanofabrication Facility in developing a device that could streamline traditional plant breeding practices by injecting genes directly into plant nuclei and tissues. What was needed was a means by which genetic material carrying desirable characteristics, such as drought or pest resistance in plants, could be coated onto microparticles and then accurately "shot" into living cells and tissues, thereby altering their genetic makeup. For more information on gene guns check out http://classweb.gmu.edu/achriste/385-Ch17ppt/sld025.htm.

The gene gun made it easy to enhance a plant's natural ability to fight disease or insect pests. Some were engineered to taste better or withstand shipping without damage. Yet other crops have been designed to withstand cold better or even protect themselves from freezing.

Now it's really getting out of hand. The FDA in the US has ruled that GM (genetically modified) crops do not need to be labeled as such for sale in the US or anywhere else for that matter. (Sales from the US) At this moment in time over 70% of food sold in supermarkets in the US contain GM products. That however may turn out to be the least of your worries. Now there's "Pharm crops". Notice how it sounds like "farm" and the folks doing it are called "Pharmers".

That term is used to refer to crops genetically modified to produce pharmaceutical drugs. Yep it's too weird to believe but it's true. Some whiz brain suit and tie number cruncher discovered it's cheaper to grow drugs than to manufacture them and the race is on.

In this month's issue of Popular Science they explain it this way. " Proteins are the workhorses of the body-they're the enzymes that digest food, the hormones that regulate growth and blood sugar, and the antibodies that battle viruses and bacteria."

What "pharmers" are doing is genetically modifying corn to produce the proteins that are used to manufacture drugs. They can grow them much cheaper than producing them in the lab. They grow the modified corn and after it's harvested and ground up it goes to a manufacturing plant where they extract the pharmaceutical proteins they want.

The scary part is that these altered corn plants can produce millions of pollen grains that can travel on the wind for many miles. Gone are the days when you could stop by a farmer's cornfield and steal a few ears for supper. Well I guess you could still do it but who knows what you might look or feel like the next morning.

No one knows what the long-term effects of these modified crops will be. So far it's not being done in Canada, at least not where the government knows about it. You can bet however that with potentially millions of dollars on the line it won't be long before some farmers on the prairies decide to become "Pharmers".

I gotta move further north!

 

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