And so, as consumer and environmental groups fight for regulations, researchers in labs around the country are experimenting with new ways to keep pharm genes from spreading. Entire cornfields can be sterilized by having volunteers walk the rows and remove the pollen-producing male flower,
or tassel, from the top of each plant, though it's hard to get all of them. In a recent study funded by Monsanto, which is developing its own drug corn, agronomist Gene Stevens of the University of Missouri used yellow corn as a stand-in for drug corn and white corn to represent a food crop. He wanted to test whether a yellow corn plot that was 90 percent sterilized would spread pollen to white corn. The white corn, which was planted 900 feet away -- less than the quarter-mile setbacks that federal rules require -- ended up with fewer than one yellow kernel per 150 ears.
Corn breeders have also bred so-called male-sterile plants that don't shed any pollen. Other researchers are inserting foreign genes into a part of the plant called the chloroplast, which is not passed on through interbreeding. And at the insistence of the USDA, Carlson surrounds his fields with rows of corn that can't reproduce, then beyond that with pasture grass and a quarter mile of soybeans -- all planted to keep the pharmaceutical corn from spreading to nearby cornfields.
Still, critics -- Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and some of the various state Public Interest Research Groups among them -- argue that it's almost inevitable that pharmaceutical corn will one day contaminate neighboring fields whose crops are destined for, say, your morning cornflakes. Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth have called for regulators to restrict pharming to greenhouses or to ban it altogether. The food industry, which supports GM food crops when they've been tested for human safety, wants pharming done only in nonfood crops, calling for "zero tolerance" of crop-made drugs or vaccines in the food supply. Even the Biotechnology Industry Organization, an industry trade group, called for a moratorium on growing pharmaceutical corn in the Corn Belt -- from Ohio to Nebraska -- but backed down under pressure from Corn Belt politicians, who hope pharming will boost rural economies.
Pharming advocates, not surprisingly, insist that safety concerns are wildly overblown. Theoretically, they say, it's possible that stray foreign proteins could escape into the bloodstream and trigger potentially lethal allergic reactions. But it's far more likely that enzymes in the stomach and small intestine would chop the drug proteins into harmless pieces. Arntzen, the Arizona State University plant biologist, likens the risk of getting sick from food contaminated by pharm crops to the risk of getting struck by an asteroid: "Scientifically, I know there are asteroids circulating the universe, and there's a possibility that one of those is going to strike the building I'm in. But I don't run screaming from the building trying to find a safe place."
NOT LONG AFTER his pharm corn contaminated the Aurora soybean silo, ProdiGene CEO Tony Laos -- a compact, broad-shouldered man -- leaned back in his chair, fixed his deep-set eyes on me, and launched into confident speculation about the future of pharming. In five years, he said, ProdiGene will sell a corn-produced HIV vaccine (a bold projection, since the yet-to-be-discovered vaccine is one of medicine's holiest grails); in ten years, Laos says, pharming will account for about 20 percent of all pharmaceutical production -- now about a $364 billion industry. But when my questions started to get specific, Laos turned wary. Could I meet with any of ProdiGene's growers in the area? "No," he replied flatly. Who grew the contaminated beans? "I can't tell you that," he said. Where is the farm located? "Nebraska."