Monday, 30 April 2007

Conservation Conservations 22

Old McDonald Had a Pharm?
The GM debate rumbles on
(see also http://www.bsf.ac.uk/responses/GMscirev.htm) with stories about the potential dangers of inserting 'human' and other genes into crop plants (such as Alfalfa, Safflower, Soya, Rice, Barley and Tobacco) to 'grow' useful proteins, medicines and even vaccines (such as for Hepatitis B and Foot and Mouth Disease) and possible cancer treatments. This technique (described as 'pharming') is really not so different from the now long-established making gene insertions into bacteria to produce Human Growth Hormone and Insulin (the claim in the newspaper article that some diabetic patients reject GM insulin is, I think, more related to the animal versions of the hormone giving the recipient a stronger 'cue' as to their presence rather than an aversion to the technology). There is no doubt that the use of GM for medical benefits generally meets with wider approval than the employment of the same technologies to produce changes in 'food' items (the 'Frankenstein foods' debate) but the dividing line is quite fine. For example, the Foot and Mouth vaccine produced by modified Alfalfa is intended to be eaten by cattle and the lactoferrin made by GM modified rice might well be added to yogourt before being fed to vulnerable children. It is obvious that many groups in many countries across the world are involved in such trials (including the USA, UK, Iceland, Italy, Cuba, Canada and Argentina). People who worry about applying GM technology to food crops are concerned that "it is only a matter of time until they (the plants containing modified genes) get into the food chain". They might well be right in this respect as there have been at least two cases in the USA where GM products have inadvertently turned up in human food items (taco shells) or crops (Soya) intended for humans. I suspect that things will have to be better regulated but that the benefits are too important for any society to ignore them.

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