The threat of genetic crops to traditional farming has long been at the centre of heated debates between environmentalists, farmers and biotechnology companies. With some biotech companies increasingly viewing genetically engineered crops as a less-expensive alternative to cultivating ingredients necessary for drug making, it is also suggested that many farmers could use the more stable income the gene-altered acreage could generate to offset shrinking farm profit margins.

However, consumer and environmental advocates worry that pollen from genetically engineered plants could contaminate fields containing food crops. Rick Shanks, senior vice president with Aon's Agribusiness and Food Systems Group, says there have already been incidents of contamination. “Recently, after a crop of genetically engineered corn was harvested, stray seeds from the genetically altered crop grew in the same field the following year and was mixed in with crops designated for humans. The crop had to be destroyed,” he said. “The only way to ensure that doesn't happen is to place tight restrictions on where genetically engineered crop can be planted.”

“The regulatory framework is not in place to enforce such restrictions,” says Jim Walters, managing director of Aon's Pharmaceutical and Chemical practice group. “The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as well as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) would have to become actively involved in regulating this activity,” he says, “and they're a long ways from doing that.”

Walters sees both sides of the debate, but says, “The biotech industry needs innovation. Concerns about liability risk are stifling creative approaches to drug manufacture. Anxieties produced by this debate could have a chilling effect on research and development, making the necessary insurance liability coverage harder to come by.”

Shanks, representing Aon as the only broker to sit on the US Chamber of Commerce's Food and Biotechnology Committee, says that while there are no immediate plans to bring this debate to the Committee as a formal agenda item, he says, “we're watching the issue.”