Fear of Pharming

Controversy swirls at the crossroads of agriculture and medicine Farming, one of the world's oldest practices has suddenly found itself entangled with modern medicine. Imagine this: at your child's appointment for a routine vaccination, the doctor proffers a banana genetically engineered to contain the vaccine and says, “Have her eat this and call me in the morning.” Though still farfetched, the scenario is getting closer to reality, with the first batch of plant-made medicines--created by genetically modifying crops such as corn, soy, canola and even fruits such as tomatoes and bananas to produce disease-fighting drugs and vaccines--now in early clinical testing. Splicing foreign genes into plants is nothing new--biologists have been doing it for about 25 years. Using the technology to produce protein-based medicine could revolutionize the drug industry, proponents say. Plants are inherently safer than current methods of using animal cell cultures, which carry a risk of spreading animal pathogens; plants also provide a much cheaper means of production. But fears that these “pharma crops” will contaminate the food supply are casting shadows on the promise of the technology. The problem is that containing genes from GM plants seems to be harder than scientists expected. Recent data suggest that bioengineered genes spread more widely than previously thought.

A pilot study released in February by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) found that more than half of native species of corn, soybean and canola tested contained low levels of DNA from strains engineered to confer resistance against herbicides. An analysis published in March established that genetically engineered corn had found its way into Mexico despite that country's six-year-old ban on growing GM varieties of the crop. And a major review of biologically modified organisms conducted last year by the National Academies of Science stressed the need to develop better confinement techniques. These findings and others illustrate the reality that experts are starting to acknowledge: the way things are going, maintaining zero levels of contamination from GM plants may be impossible.


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Top Stories - October 18th, 2004


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