Pharming drugs

Publication - March 31, 2008
Greenpeace believes food plants and animals should not be used in the production of pharmaceuticals. Pharming promises abundant, affordable medicines and has strong appeal, but there are serious risks. The term itself is a hybrid for farming genetically engineered plants to produce pharmaceutical drugs and industrial chemicals. The problem is these drugs could end up in our cornflakes.

Like other GE plants, there is the serious risk that pharmed plants and animals will crossbreed with food crops. Corn in particular, which accounts for about two-thirds of pharmaceutical crops being tested, has a strong tendency to cross-pollinate.

There have already been several cases of contamination. In 2002, in the U.S., half a million bushels of soya for human consumption were contaminated by GE corn designed to produce a transmissible stomach virus. In Quebec and Ontario, several incidents were reported of GE pigs that were being used as bio-reactors for molecular farming mistakenly being sent to the slaughter house, possibly ending up on someone’s plate as bacon or a pork chop.

So far there have been no studies indicating that GE food poses a health risk; on the other hand, there have been no studies on the long-term effects of GE food on human health. However, pharma crops raise the stakes as they are designed to specifically target a physiological function in humans.

Greenpeace has urged the federal government to prevent the release in Canada of GE plants designed for pharming. We warned of the danger posed to the environment and its natural biodiversity, the food chain and the ability of Canadian farmers to sell their crops in overseas markets.

In 2004, the auditor general issued a report about the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, which regulates GE crops, criticizing its deficiencies in procedures for determining whether or not to release GE plants.

There is no excuse for allowing drug producing crops to be grown out in the fields where they can contaminate the environment and food chain by spreading their genes to wild relatives and to conventional crops growing nearby. Pharmaceuticals can be produced in other ways.

Terminator seeds

Greenpeace believes sterile terminator seeds are dangerous and should be banned in Canada.

Terminator seeds — or GURTS (Genetic Use Restriction Technologies) — are a class of genetic engineering technologies that produce seeds with sterile offspring. This means farmers can’t plant seeds from their harvest and the seeds will rot in the soil without producing new plants.

If this technology is introduced for crops such as soy, wheat, canola and cotton, farmers will be forced to buy new seeds every year from the same company. Terminator seeds have been widely condemned as a threat to food security for the 1.4 billion people who depend on seeds saved on the farm.

There is currently a global moratorium on terminator technology and Greenpeace is calling on governments to ban it. Brazil and India have already enacted bans. Canada — a major proponent of terminator seeds — must ban this dangerous technology.

Genetic pollution

GE plants contain genes from unrelated species, bacteria, viruses, other plants and even animals. These foreign genes can transfer to other organisms, resulting in genetic contamination. If wild plants, such as weeds, crossbreed with herbicide-resistant GE crops, superweeds resistant to herbicides could form.

Genetic contamination happens in four ways:

  • A GE seed fertilizes a wild plant growing close to a GE field.
  • A GE seed fertilizes a traditional or organic plant on a nearby field.
  • A GE plant surviving outside a GE field develops into semi-wild GE plants.
  • Microorganisms in soil or the intestines of animals that have eaten GE food assimilate foreign genes.

Genetic pollution is alive and can spread as plants and microorganisms grow and reproduce. That’s why the spread of GE organisms cannot be confined to their original habitat. Genetic pollution threatens the diversity of the planet’s crops.