Fields of Genes

by Suzi Fraser
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By Suzi Fraser Dominy

The concept of genetic modification is gradually gaining acceptance. For the sixth consecutive year, farmers worldwide have adopted biotech crops at a double-digit pace. Nearly 6 million farmers in 16 countries planted almost 59 million hectares of biotech crops in 2002 (also see Editorial, page 8). A new report from the Ithica, New York-based International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications predicts that by 2005 the global market value of biotech crops will reach U.S.$5 billion.

In order to reach this point, the industry has struggled with trade and technical issues, and marketing nightmares, handled — and sometimes mishandled — against a backdrop of press sensationalism and misinformation. While the controversies have raged over GM food crops, quietly and away from the spotlight, there has been another plant biotechnology revolution taking place: the development of molecular farming.

Biological factories

A useful definition of plant molecular farming comes from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, as follows:

"The use of plants in agriculture to produce biomolecules instead of food, feed and fiber. Plants with introduced novel traits that produce scientifically, medically or industrially interesting biomolecules are grown as crops and harvested for the biomolecules."

Recent advances in gene discovery and gene sequencing, combined with progress in plant molecular genetics mean that in essence, any gene can be expressed in plant cells. The way has been paved for the commercial manufacture of a wide range of recombinant DNA products. The potential is enormous, from enzymes and hormones to antibodies and oral vaccines and to entirely new synthetic drugs.

Commercial production is still limited to about 20 companies worldwide, but research and investment are accelerating rapidly and, driven by the favorable economics of renewable "plant factories," full-scale production seems imminent. To date corn, barley, alfalfa, canola, flax, rice, root crops and tobacco have all been used for this technology. Tobacco is particularly well suited for biopharming, and for this ailing industry, it is seen as a savior: it has been predicted that by 2010, tobacco plants will be more valuable as a source of biopharmaceuticals than of tobacco.

Challenges and opportunities

The full-scale establishment of molecular farming faces the same containment challenges associated with GM food production, such as co-mingling and environmental segregation, but potentially its greatest challenge will be to inspire confidence in its safety in both farmers and the public. Given the furor over the introduction of plants with such relatively unsensational characteristics as enhanced nutritional traits and improved pest resistance, one can only imagine the response by action groups and the popular press to fields of grain spliced with human genes or whose products are directed towards human health.

There have already been some protests by activists, but their efforts have generally been overshadowed by the wider GM issue. The environmental group Greenpeace, for example, says it is opposed to the introduction of all engineered crops, though it is not opposed to greenhouse cultivation. It is keeping a close watch on the industry, claiming that open field trials of plants that produce Hepatitis B vaccine, human antibodies against herpes and other diseases, and human blood proteins, have been taking place every growing season in the U.S. since 1992. Field trials, the group says, have taken place in the U.S., France, and Canada, as well as in unnamed countries in South America, the South Pacific and the Caribbean. However, USDA has issued permits for less than 500 acres of plant-made pharmaceuticals, said Lisa Dry, spokesperson for BIO, a biotechnology industry trade association. Dry noted that figure did not include totals for plant-made industrial products.

In the U.S., where this emergent industry is rapidly establishing, there is some cautious enthusiasm from farming groups such as the National Corn Growers Association and the American Farm Bureau, but there is also concern particularly from environmentalists and from food processors. Pressure is being applied on the biotechnology industry to use non-food plants such as tobacco so as to avoid co-mingling, to move production away from food-crop growing regions and for stringent mandatory regulation and oversight by the federal government.

An incident last year did nothing to engender confidence when a Texas, U.S.-based company, ProdiGene, a forerunner in molecular farming, was accused of improperly harvesting and introducing to commercial storage for distribution experimental corn modified to produce pharmaceutical agents.

The National Food Processors Association, the voice of the U.S.$500 billion food processing industry, is nervous. In response to the ProdiGene incident, NFPA President and CEO John R. Cady said, "It is nothing short of alarming to know that at the earliest stages of the development of crops for plant-made pharmaceuticals, the most basic preventive measures were not faithfully observed. …This incident presents validation of the food industry’s concerns that voluntary protections are not sufficient to protect the integrity and safety of the food supply."

Science fiction becoming reality

Back in 1999, delegates to the BioTherapeutics conference in Washington D.C. heard that in the future, the most significant uses of biotech would lie in areas unrelated to food and pharmaceuticals. Barbara Wheat, chairman of consulting company The Bowditch Group, Inc., predicted,

"Biotechnology in agriculture is not going to be about food, it’s going to be about using renewable, non-polluting resources to produce innovative products that will be as much a part of our lives as plastics and computers are now."

Before that happens, there are some lessons to be learned, particularly about preventing comingling into the food grain supply. But just as the controversy over GM foods is starting to yield to inevitability, so it will probably be with molecular farming. Progress — for better or for worse — is unstoppable.