Washington -- At a secret location among the vineyards of California's Central Coast, a plot of genetically engineered corn is producing proteins for industrial and pharmaceutical uses, including an experimental vaccine for hepatitis B.
The altered corn is growing with federal approval 100 feet from a steelhead stream in San Luis Obispo County, in designated critical habitat for the threatened California red-legged frog. Agriculture Department inspectors have reported two "incidents" at the site, including conventional corn sprouting in a 50-foot fallow zone, but the findings did not rise to the level of a fine or even to a formal notice of noncompliance for the company that planted it, Applied Biotechnology Institute Inc.
Details of Applied Biotechnology's inspections and hundreds of other field trials with genetically modified plants were obtained by Hearst Newspapers under Freedom of Information laws. The inspection reports and other Agriculture Department records present a picture of vast, swiftly expanding outdoor experimentation and industry-friendly oversight of those experiments.
The founder and president of Applied Biotechnology, John A. Howard, previously founded another company that was permanently banned from trials of genetically modified organisms - GMOs - after creating such contaminated messes in the Midwest that a half-million bushels of soybeans and more than 150 acres of corn had to be destroyed.
Yet since 2009, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has approved the Applied Biotechnology Institute's little-known plantings, albeit with limits so strict that ears of corn must be locked up and plant remains must be buried 3 feet deep. Indeed, things are proceeding so well for Applied Biotechnology that Howard is seeking land to expand the 5-acre "pharming" operation.
The outdoor tests are at the leading edge of a technological revolution based on reordering the building blocks of life. The advent of GMOs has spawned global debate and protest over issues of consumer safety and the uncertain effects of altered genes on the environment.