[Paleopsych] Wired: Cave Pharming Yields Big Crops

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Fri Jul 29 15:46:47 UTC 2005

Cave Pharming Yields Big Crops
Apr. 22, 2005    By Kristen Philipkoski

It's not the bucolic, sun-dappled landscape you might envision when picturing 
American farmland. But a chilly, damp cave with no natural light just may be 
the most productive agricultural environment around.

Purdue researchers and entrepreneur Doug Ausenbaugh didn't launch an 
underground farm because they thought it would yield more crops. They wanted to 
provide biotech companies a safe environment for growing crops containing 
pharmaceutical drugs for humans. But they were pleasantly surprised to find 
that not only did the former quarry apparently keep pollen from the corn, 
tobacco, soybeans, tomatoes and potatoes from escaping, but it also led to 
higher yields than greenhouses or outdoor fields.

Some researchers believe that growing drugs in crops could be a cheaper and 
easier way to get biotech drugs than growing them in vats of genetically 
modified bacteria, as it's done today. But companies pursuing this approach 
have suffered setbacks due to government regulators, protests from 
environmental groups, and at least one incident in which a pharmaceutical crop 
nearly slipped into the food supply.

Last year, Ausenbaugh founded Controlled Pharming Ventures to grow crops in a 
former quarry and underground warehouse, in the hope that it would reduce the 
risks inherent in "pharming." With the help of Purdue scientists and a grant 
from the Indiana 21st Century Research and Technology Fund, he seems at least 
to have proven that crops can grow robustly in a seemingly inhospitable 60-acre 
former limestone quarry in Marengo, Indiana.

"We didn't know if there would be some trace contaminant or gas in the 
atmosphere that could have been a show stopper to normal crop growth and 
development," said Cary Mitchell, a Purdue horticulture professor, in an 
e-mail. "There wasn't. Things went smoothly."

The average yield for the genetically modified corn (Bt corn, which contains a 
gene that produces a protein that kills larvae of the European corn borer) 
grown in the facility was 337 bushels per acre. The researchers also grew corn 
in a greenhouse, getting 267 bushels per acre. The average yield for field corn 
in the United States is just 142 bushels per acre. The researchers say they can 
achieve higher yields in the cave thanks to the controlled environment.

Although it's more expensive to grow crops in an artificial environment, higher 
yields could help offset the cost.

Mitchell says that if they can make the lighting system even more efficient, 
the cave system could revolutionize U.S. farming, whether it involves growing 
genetically modified or conventional crops.

For example, he's working on a way to use plant debris as an energy source to 
feed the lighting system, which also helps ward off the chill of the cave. The 
system could even support organic farming, because fruits and vegetables could 
be grown without pesticides, since there are no insects in the cave.

His potential customers include companies like Ventria Bioscience, whose 
pharming efforts have been held up by the USDA and concerns from farmers and 
environmental groups in states including California and Missouri.

Environmentalists don't trust that the transgenic plants -- crops with foreign 
DNA added to their genome -- won't contaminate food crops. They point out that 
shipping mishaps, not pollen drift, have caused most contamination problems so 
far. So they don't think growing pharmaceuticals in a cave will solve that 

If medications make their way to people for whom the drugs were never intended, 
the results could be disastrous. That almost happened in Nebraska in 2002 when 
ProdiGene accidentally mixed corn it said contained an animal vaccine with half 
a million bushels of soybeans meant for human consumption. All of the corn and 
soybeans had to be destroyed. In Iowa, ProdiGene corn cross-pollinated with 155 
acres of conventional corn, which then had to be burned.

"It's an issue of irresponsibility on the part of the biotech industry," said 
Bill Freese, a research analyst at Friends of the Earth.

In March, the journal Nature reported that hundreds of tons of an unapproved 
genetically modified corn called Bt10 had entered the food and feed supply in 
the United States and overseas since 2001. Bt10 is not a pharmaceutical crop -- 
Swiss biotech Syngenta engineered the corn to produce pesticide. But Freese and 
others say this and other examples show that genetically modified crops are 
difficult to contain.

"Most people would reasonably require that there's no chance that a 
pharmaceutical agent could contaminate the food supply," said Craig Culp, media 
director for the Center for Food Safety. "And the only way to do that is not 
engineering our food crops to produce pharmaceutical or chemical agents."

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