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2-Plants: Molecular farming under fire in Canada

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TITLE:  Molecular Farming Under Fire
SOURCE:, by Charles Mandel,1294,48108,00.html
DATE:   November 6, 2001

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Molecular Farming Under Fire 

OTTAWA -- The next wave of genetically altered plants are on the horizon, 
and activists are warning the hue and cry over plant molecular farming will 
dwarf any previous controversy over other such products. The new outcry 
over plant molecular farming coincides with a public forum currently 
underway in Ottawa. The federal government's Canadian Food Inspection 
Agency (CFIA) has called for the public's views on plant molecular farming -
-or "pharming" as it's sometimes referred to in the industry.

The one-day forum and three-day technical conference are meant to help the 
CFIA as they draft new regulatory directives for 2002. While no plants for 
molecular farming are currently approved in Canada, the government wants 
its regulatory framework in place before the practice takes off. Plant 
molecular farming uses genetic engineering to produce substances for a 
variety of uses. Potential products include the development of antigens for 
vaccines that might be mass-produced in plants such as corn and used to 
fight such diseases as cancer and diabetes.

It's the fact that the plants are used to produce drugs that is alarming 
activists. They worry that once production begins, the altered plants might 
find their way into the food supply or cross-pollinate with clean crops. 
Concern arose last year after GMO corn produced by StarLink accidentally 
ended up in commercial food products.

"These are drugs that you should only be eating if you've got a 
prescription from the doctor, and not because they're in your taco shell," 
says Doreen Stabinsky, a geneticist in Bar Harbour, Maine, who is a science 
advisor to Greenpeace. Stabinsky said once people learn more about plant 
molecular farming, she would expect the fuss over them to be larger than it 
is over other GMO crops. "I think people will really react to this in a way 
they haven't reacted to other GMOs," she said. "It's much more blatant. 
'Somebody's putting a drug in my food? What!'" Stabinsky argues the issues 
associated with plant molecular farming are more serious than other GMO 
plants because pharmaceuticals are involved. "They're drugs. They're meant 
to cause some kind of physiological change in humans," she said.

Plant molecular farming is potentially big business. The CFIA, in a recent 
report, says that U.S. demand alone for biotech pharmaceuticals is 
expanding at 13 percent annually and is expected to command a market value 
of $28.6 billion by 2004. Already such American companies as ProdiGene in 
Texas and Applied Phytologics Incorporated of California are testing plant 
molecular crops. ProdiGene is developing vaccines for animals and humans, 
while Applied Phytologics is growing open-air crops of rice containing 
human proteins including lactoferrin.

In Canada, only three or four companies have applied to work with plant 
molecular farming, according to Stephen Yarrow, the CFIA's national manager 
of the bioplant safety office. "It's a very specialized part of the story 
at this time," he said. The Ottawa consultation has attracted 55 people 
representing industry, food producers, academics and scientists. However, 
the Canadian environmental movement is boycotting the proceedings.

A letter from the Canadian Environmental Network (CEN), a clearinghouse for 
national environment groups, criticizes the hearings as biased in favor of 
industry. Derek Stack, CEN's national caucus coordinator and author of the 
letter, wrote that only one environmental group was invited although a half-
day discussion of environmental issues was scheduled. He also criticized 
the CFIA for failing to circulate technical papers before the consultation 
and for having limited advertising about the meetings. "In short, the ENGOs 
(Environmental Non-Governmental Organizations) the CEN approached felt the 
structure of the meeting was not geared toward balanced results, technical 
debate or public input."

Yarrow expressed surprise that the CEN chose not to send a delegate and 
dismissed their complaint that they'd received their invitation to the 
hearings late as "utter nonsense."


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