It's only a 1.2-acre field of scraggly looking corn. But for American farmers and cystic fibrosis patients, the small plot of transgenic corn planted on Joe and Bill Horan's farm is literally a Field of Dreams.
Hollywood couldn't write a story this good. It's a situation where two Midwest farmers read an article about pharmaceutical crops and e-mailed the author who works for a biotechnology company. The story continues with a journey to France to meet with that company and the eventual testing of a transgenic corn crop in northwest Iowa.
That particular corn produces lipase, a protein that helps cystic fibrosis patients' digestion. “As far as we know, we're the first farmers to grow human pharmaceuticals in the United States,” says Joe Horan, who farms with his brother Bill near Manson, IA. “It's the start of what we hope is lower-cost drugs and a spot for farmers in the pharmaceutical crop value chain.”
This year the Horans are custom growing their second transgenic corn crop for France-based Meristem Therapeutics. “It's so time consuming, we should have turned our back on it,” Horan adds. “But, it's a small price to pay to get started in the industry that is going to be out there. There are at least 350 drugs in the pipeline.”
The premium that farmers eventually will be paid for pharmaceutical or industrial use crops will depend on the type of the product and the number of acres needed, according to John Howard, chief scientific officer at ProdiGene, College Station, TX.
“For pharmaceutical crops, farmers shouldn't expect less than a 50¢/bu premium over #2 yellow corn. A dollar a bushel or more, however, isn't unrealistic,” Howard notes. “The premium for industrial-use products will be closer to a 25¢/bu premium. They won't require nearly as much extra work, but the premium will make segregation affordable.”
The Horans hope to capture additional profit on the processing side. “The key is to be part of the value chain,” Horan says. “You get paid for the value you bring to the chain. Farmer ownership of processing is a key to additional profit.”
The Iowa Cooperative, a group of farmers lead by the Horans and dedicated to growing specialty crops, is looking to build a $40 million processing plant in Ames, IA. “It will be the only lab in the world that can process large batches of pharmaceutical grains,” he says. “Long term, we don't want to be just contract growers. We want to solidify our place in the value chain.”
It's a place not every farmer can fill. “In a sense, you become a researcher when you grow these crops. You have to time and date everything you do,” Horan says. “It's a whole new mind-set. This is a technology that rewards management ability, not size, either large or small.”
The Horans bought machinery dedicated to just their transgenic crop, faced planting restrictions, isolation requirements and even detasseled the male sterile plants.
The crop didn't require special treatment in terms of fertilizer or weed control. At harvest, however, the seed was cleaned twice; the cleanout burned and buried; and the crop itself bagged into 2,000-lb bags that were placed in containers and shipped to France.
ProdiGene's Howard predicts it won't be long before farmers will have the chance to grow a number of pharmaceutical and industrial transgenic crops. “Growing pharmaceuticals in a plant has a number of advantages,” he says. “It's more economical, it's scalable (it's easier to plant more crops than build bigger factories) and it can be administered orally.”
Pharmaceuticals certainly won't replace #2 yellow corn, however. “If you have 1,000 products that each require 1,000 acres of production, you're still only talking about 1 million acres,” Howard adds. “But if you add in crops for industrial-use products, you could be looking at several million acres of crops within the next 10 years.”