The rice with human genes
By SEAN POULTER
Last updated at 08:57 06 March 2007
The first GM food crop containing human genes is set to be approved for commercial production.
The laboratory-created rice produces some of the human proteins found in breast milk and saliva.
Its U.S. developers say they could be used to treat children with diarrhoea, a major killer in the Third World.
The rice is a major step in so-called Frankenstein Foods, the first mingling of human-origin genes and those from plants. But the U.S. Department of Agriculture has already signalled it plans to allow commercial cultivation.
The rice’s producers, California-based Ventria Bioscience, have been given preliminary approval to grow it on more than 3,000 acres in Kansas. The company plans to harvest the proteins and use them in drinks, desserts, yoghurts and muesli bars.
The news provoked horror among GM critics and consumer groups on both sides of the Atlantic.
GeneWatch UK, which monitors new GM foods, described it as “very disturbing”. Researcher Becky Price warned: “There are huge, huge health risks and people should rightly be concerned about this.”
Friends of the Earth campaigner Clare Oxborrow said: “Using food crops and fields as glorified drug factories is a very worrying development.
“If these pharmaceutical crops end up on consumers’ plates, the consequences for our health could be devastating.
“The biotech industry has already failed to prevent experimental GM rice contaminating the food chain.
“The Government must urge the U.S. to ban the production of drugs in food crops. It must also introduce tough measures to prevent illegal GM crops contaminating our food and ensure that biotech companies are liable for any damage their products cause.”
In the U.S., the Union of Concerned Scientists, a policy advocacy group, warned: “It is unwise to produce drugs in plants outdoors.
“There would be little control over the doses people might get exposed to, and some might be allergic to the proteins.”
The American Consumers Union and the Washingtonbased Centre for Food Safety also oppose Ventria’s plans.
As well as the contamination fears there are serious ethical concerns about such a fundamental interference with the building blocks of life.
Yet there is no legal means for Britain and Europe to ban such products on ethical grounds.
Imports would have to be accepted once they had gone through a scientific safety assessment.
The development is what may people feared when, ten years ago, food scientists showed what was possible by inserting copies of fish genes from the flounder into tomatoes, to help them withstand frost.
Ventria has produced three varieties of the rice, each with a different human-origin gene that makes the plants produce one of three human proteins.
Two – lactoferrin and lysozyme – are bacteria-fighting compounds found in breast milk and saliva. The genes, cultivated and copied in a laboratory to produce a synthetic version, are carried into embryonic rice plants inside bacteria.
Until now, plants with human-origin genes have been restricted to small test plots.
Ventria originally planned to grow the rice in southern Missouri but the brewer Anheuser-Busch, a huge buyer of rice, threatened to boycott the state amid concern over contamination and consumer reaction.
Now the USDA, saying the rice poses “virtually no risk”. has given preliminary approval for it to be grown in Kansas, which has no commercial rice farms.
Ventria will also use dedicated equipment, storage and processing facilities supposed to prevent seeds from mixing with other crops.
The company says food products using the rice proteins could help save many of the two million children a year who die from diarrhoea and the resulting dehydration and complications. A recent study in Peru, sponsored by Ventria, showed that children with severe diarrhoea recovered a day and a half faster if the salty fluids they were prescribed included the proteins.
The rice could also be a huge money-spinner in the Western world, with parents being told it will help their children get over unpleasant stomach bugs more quickly.
Ventria chief executive Scott Deeter said last night: “We have a product here that can help children get better faster.”
He said any concerns about safety and contamination were “based on perception, not reality” given all the precautions the company was taking.
Mr Deeter said production in plants was far cheaper than other methods, which should help make the therapy affordable in the developing world.
He said: “Plants are phenomenal factories. Our raw materials are the sun, soil and water.”