Last year, Curt Carlson grew drugs on his farm.
He has no idea what kind of drugs they were, because the folks who did the planting and harvesting never told him what he was growing. Carlson -- 54, ruddy skin, beefy hands -- has been farming in Aurora, Nebraska, since he returned from Vietnam in 1971. Four years ago, he was approached by some people who wanted to cultivate their own plants on small one- to two-acre plots in the midst of the massive soybean fields on his 1,500-acre farm. They said if he worked with them, he'd soon be able to dramatically expand production, and would, acre for acre, earn twice what he'd clear for a more conventional crop. Beyond that, though, they were pretty tight-lipped. "It's all been kind of hush-hush," Carlson says.
"Hush-hush," of course, is just what you'd expect from someone growing drugs in the heartland. Except there was nothing illicit about the drugs on Carlson's farm. Those two- acre plots had, in fact, been planted with corn -- albeit corn specially engineered to grow prescription pharmaceuticals.
Venomous public debates have erupted in recent years over genetically modified (GM) crops, as engineered foods -- tomatoes with genes to increase flavor, soybeans designed to resist herbicides -- began showing up in grocery stores. Today, the battle over GM food is all but over in the United States: The FDA has ruled that no special labels are required to tell consumers which products contain genetically engineered crops, and 70 percent of processed foods on supermarket shelves in the United States now contain genetically engineered ingredients. But as agribusiness and government regulators argued over how much the public should know about the GM foods they're eating, scientists were quietly developing more powerful -- and some say more dangerous -- plants called pharmaceutical crops (a.k.a. pharm crops), which are designed to mass-produce drugs, vaccines and industrial chemicals.
From where I sat recently in the cab of Carlson's white pickup, his pharm plot looked like every other Nebraska cornfield in December: flat land beneath a panoramic sky, brown soil strewn with last year's corn stubble. But his cornfield is far from average. Fields like Carlson's are poised to revolutionize pharmaceuticals and become a multibillion-dollar industry by creating products in a way that's cheaper, faster and safer than current methods. Pharm-raised drugs and vaccines for diseases ranging from herpes to hepatitis are entering clinical trials. And personalized cancer vaccines grown in plants may soon make it feasible to tailor cancer therapy to attack an individual's tumor instead of wiping out his entire system with one-size-fits-all chemotherapy drugs.
But a month before I arrived at Carlson's farm, the world was treated to a vivid demonstration of just how easily pharm crops might inadvertently slip into the food supply -- which is why they're also poised to be the center of the next great battle in the war over genetically modified crops.
PROTEINS ARE THE WORKHORSES of the human body -- they're the enzymes that digest food, the hormones that regulate growth and blood sugar, and the antibodies that battle viruses and bacteria. Most protein drugs, like Enbrel, for rheumatoid arthritis, are made by inserting a protein-
producing human gene into cultured hamster cells, which are grown in huge steel vats equipped with thousands of feet of plumbing and an automated monitoring system. Because of complex machinery and lengthy government approval processes, it can take $400 million and five to seven years to get one of these factories going.