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For the past decade, tobacco farmers have seen profits go up in smoke,
December 2004 by John Friedlein.
Many have given up on the crop, especially after the quota buyout that was
recently passed by Congress.
A new market could open up for local growers ? one that could line
pocketbooks and save lives.
It's called pharming. Growers produce crops after scientists tinker with the
plants' genes to turn them into mini-production facilities that crank out
And here's something tobacco farmers haven't heard in a while: If this
happens, there could be an increasing demand for tobacco.
So far, however, there are no tobacco "pharmers" in Hardin County, but White
Mills grower Steve Meredith is optimistic. He said the state has a "great
potential" to raise tobacco for medicine because growers already know a lot
about the crop and the University of Kentucky has strong college of
agriculture and pharmacy.
Newer technology and mapping of the human genome have "really advanced those
possibilities forward," Meredith said.
He doesn't think the average tobacco farmer is aware of these developments.
Before the buyout, they were hopeful of new market opportunities, but, they
are now interested in reinvesting buyout funds into operations that aren't
Meredith sees the possibility of pharming replacing or exceeding past
Local farmers must wait, though. The pharming business is currently small
and localized, but it will grow, said Dr. Orlando Chambers, biotechnology
relations director of UK's Kentucky Tobacco Research and Development Center.
"Our mission is to specifically look at new uses for tobacco," he said.
Funding for his program comes from a small portion of the state cigarette
While the number of acres of tobacco grown for medicine is still small, "I
think you're seeing a need on the demand side," Chambers said. "It's sort of
still in its infancy, but growing."
Research companies are looking to expand acreage grown.
There are three permits to pharm tobacco in Kentucky. UK has two and an
Owensboro company called Large Scale Biology has the other. The Owensboro
company is using the crop to develop a treatment for non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.
Pharming companies alter the plants' DNA or use viruses to produce proteins.
Scientists have found tobacco to be a more efficient medium than other
methods of protein production, such as animal and microbial cell cultures.
The USDA still heavily regulates the industry. Genetically-modified crops
have raised concerns about damage to ecosystems and other farm products.
UK, though, is developing varieties of this tobacco that are sterile, to
allay worries about outcrossing and contaminating other types of plants. One
benefit of this identity preservation is that it won't mix with conventional
The engineered tobacco looks different than plants grown for chewing or
smoking. The leaves make it look bushier, it's grown differently, and the
plants are harvested when they're smaller.
But like regular tobacco, the engineered kind will grow well around here,
Still, Rod Grusy, a Hardin County extension agent, doesn't think it will
replace traditional tobacco in terms of either the number of growers or the
"I don't think there is enough demand," he said.
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