When we last heard from John B. Henry, his Hanover, Md., biotechnology firm was girding for another battle with federal regulators ("All the President's Men," February 1989, [Article link]). Having completed the small outdoor tests of its new biopesticide, Crop Genetics International was applying for permission to begin the large-scale field trials it must do before it can bring the product to market.
On April 28 Henry cleared a huge hurdle when the EPA issued a permit for Crop Genetics to conduct more extensive trials this summer in the midwestern Corn Belt. The EPA based its decision on the success of the small tests, which showed that the recombinant microorganism did not spread beyond target plants and died quickly in soil, water, and plant debris.
That's a crucial finding. The company's product, InCide, is a genetically engineered vaccine that multiplies in the sap of growing plants, conferring seasonlong immunity to certain pests -- in this case, the European corn borer. Government studies estimate that the borer causes $500 million in damage to the U.S. corn crop every year, despite the application of $50 million worth of chemical pesticides.
InCide could significantly reduce the costs and environmental hazards of chemical spraying, provided it is proven safe. The tests this summer are taking place in Illinois, Nebraska, and Minnesota, as well as Maryland. They will focus on the company's proprietary seed-inoculation technology, which inserts minute amounts of InCide into corn seed. Stay tuned. -- Jay Finegan