- GM crops specially engineered to produce drugs are to
be grown commercially for the first time, The Independent on Sunday can
- An American biotech company plans to start growing medicines
to treat diarrhoea in modified rice this spring. Its proposals were examined
last week by regulatory authorities in California, but they have no power
to stop the planting.
- The rice will usher in a second generation of GM crops,
which are bound to polarise opinion even more than those that have already
caused controversy around the world. Unlike current crops they could offer
real benefits to millions of people - but they also pose far greater health
- Top officials at the Department for Environment, Food
and Rural Affairs believe that the danger is so great that the new crops
should never be grown in Britain. But Downing Street has cautiously endorsed
- The possibilities for growing drugs in plants - dubbed
"pharming" - have been researched for years, with scientists
developing a wide range of vaccines and other medicines in several common
foods in the laboratory. But now Ventria Bioscience, based in Sacramento,
is to break new ground by planting 130 acres with two new varieties of
GM rice that will produce lactoferrin and lysozyme, infection-fighting
chemicals that it will market for use in oral rehydration products to treat
- It says that this could generate enough lactoferrin to
treat at least 650,000 sick children, and sufficient lysozyme for 6.5 million
patients. It hopes to expand production to 1,000 acres within a few years.
- The company will not disclose the site that it has earmarked
for the new crops because it is worried that protesters will destroy them.
But its plans have already caused alarm in California's rice-growing country.
Organic farmers, in particular, fear that the GM rice will contaminate
their crops; the company says that there is "no risk".
- On Thursday the arguments were thrashed out before a
meeting of the California Rice Commission, which is drawing up a protocol
of conditions under which the rice can be grown. But Tim Johnson, the commission's
president, told The Independent on Sunday that neither it nor the state's
agriculture secretary, to whom it reports, has the power to stop the rice
- He said that the commission was instead concentrating
on working out precautions - such as the distance the GM rice must be from
conventional crops - to try to minimise risks.
- The chemicals in the rice are relatively mild - they
are found in mother's milk - but they are likely to pave the way for a
wide range of stronger ones. Scientists, for example, have developed vaccines
to treat diseases ranging from measles to hepatitis B - and antibodies
to treat cancer and dental caries, provide contraceptives and prevent genital
herpes - in potatoes, maize, wheat, rice, alfalfa, carrots and tomatoes.
- The company says that its plants "will become 'factories'
that manufacture therapeutic proteins to combat life-threatening illnesses".
It adds that "plants improved through the use of biotechnology"
can produce them "for innovative treatments for diseases such as cancer,
HIV, heart disease, diabetes, Alzheimer's disease, kidney disease, Crohn's
disease, cystic fibrosis and many others".
- © 2004 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd