Canadians give go-ahead for ‘molecular farming’ in plants

UNIVERSITY OF CALGARY – NEWS RELEASE
March 23, 2007

A group of Canadians have advised government agencies to proceed with implementing a controversial plant molecular farming technology, says Dr. Edna Einsiedel, professor of Communications Studies in the Faculty of Communication and Culture, who led and developed a public consultation on the issue.

Between October 2006 to February 2007, Canadians were asked through a public consultation, carried out online and face-to-face, for their input on whether Canada should commercially develop the technology to genetically modify plants to produce drugs, vaccines and industrial compounds for products such as oil, plastics and cosmetics.

The 12 panelists who participated in the face-to-face format have composed a report, submitted to Agriculture Canada and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, which recommends that Canada should proceed with developing and implementing this emerging technology. The more than 400 Canadians who participated in the online segment of the consultation also expressed high levels of support for the technology.

“The panelist report recommendation is that plant molecular farming is a good technology and it should be pursued, but that there are challenges the regulatory system should take into account,” says Einsiedel. “It is significant that citizen input is being tapped before a government decision is finalized, because this issue goes beyond science. It is controversial because it has ethical, economic and social implications including who will benefit from the technology and how the risks will be managed.”

The two proposed uses for plant molecular farming are for industrial and medical products. Once they are genetically modified, the plants act as factories for producing drugs and industrial products more efficiently and inexpensively than current production practices.

“If food crops are used as the plant factory, there is a risk that food produced for human consumption could become contaminated by the genetically modified crops or that environmental damage could occur,” says Einsiedel. “Animals could digest the genetically modified crops or degrading waste material could leach into the water system.”

But the public recommendation advises that if Agriculture Canada identifies and implements ways to control these risks, the benefits are significant. In the report, panelists say there may be environmental and economic benefits. For example, insulin can be produced by safflower plants more cheaply than through conventional methods and advocates of plant molecular farming suggest this savings might be passed on to diabetics. As well, plant molecular farming might allow for the development of oral vaccines, which can be administered and stored more easily.

Scientists are also experimentally developing genetically modified tobacco plants to produce drugs for the treatment of Crohn’s disease and other inflammatory bowel diseases, rice to treat breast cancer and corn to develop bioplastics.

At present Canada has interim regulations in place to govern the confined field testing of plant molecular farmed crops, but has no regulations which would allow for the commercialization of plant molecular farming applications.

A copy of the full report can be found at www.fp.ucalgary.ca/pharmingthefuture

Contact:

Jennifer Myers, Senior Communications Manager, Faculty of Communication and Culture
University of Calgary
Email: [email protected]
Phone: 403-220-4117 Cell: 403-801-3965

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