Biopharming – the modification of food plants for industrial and pharmaceutical purposes.

Published in Farmers Weekly I discuss the use of food crops as a host for novel GM traits – including using food plants as factories to produce complex molecules for the industrial and pharmaceutical industries. 

Talking Point: Biopharm crops.

The UK government must decide this year whether to allow the first GM herbicide tolerant crops to be grown in the UK. The industry’s voluntary moratorium is coming to an end and public concern remains very high. 

Most farmers are aware of the public debate that is a raging around the planet. There is a division of opinion amongst UK farmers as demonstrated by farm’s recent poll indicating that 51% of farmers do not expect to benefit from GM crops whilst 31% do (11% strongly against; 3% strongly in favour). The science of GM crops is intertwined with economics, trade issues, food sustainability, environmental issues, ethics and more but ultimately it comes down to the possibility of saving a few £ per acre on herbicide costs against the near certainty of losing our customer’s confidence in our produce.

But many farmers are concerned that in rejecting current technology they may also be rejecting future technology.

So what of the future for biotech? 

Claims have been made that biotechnology can achieve an increase in the quantity and quality of food to feed a hungry world; and also give the farmer profitable non-food crop alternatives (the paradox will not be lost on farmers)

Many claims have been made for modified crops with increased yield potential, increased disease resistance, and increased food value but these are proving elusive goals. But for farmers the real ‘pay day’ is the potential for high-value non-food crops for industrial or pharmaceutical uses and the development of new opportunities and new markets. 

Field scale trials of biopharm crops exhibiting a number of traits are currently underway in the US. Amongst these traits are complex molecules for industrial applications, vaccines and pharmaceutical drugs (including contraceptive or abortion inducing drugs).

It has always been assumed by EU environmental regulators that the developers of biopharm crops would use non-food and non-native host species to limit the potential for contamination of the food chain, (whether by accident or otherwise) and to limit the potential for contamination of native species and the environment. It was also assumed that because of the high value of these products that these crops would be grown in enclosed secure premises.

And this is the problem. US biotech engineers have used maize as the host plant – the worlds most widely traded food grain – although there are plenty of non-food and non-native species that would be suitable. The potential for accidental contamination of maize in the human and animal food chain by biopharm vaccines, drugs and industrial products will be obvious to farmers — and the public. 

The choice of a food species host shows a stunning lack of understanding of consumer concerns in Europe, and, following a biopharm vaccine contamination scare, biopharm has hit the headlines in the US. The sleeping giant of US public opinion is awakening, prodded into life by the potential for damage to human health, animal health and environment. Ten food groups including the Grocery Manufactures of America, the Food Marketing Institute, the National Restaurant Association have responded saying that they ‘fear unapproved biotech pharmaceutical crops could seep into the food supply and undermine US consumer confidence’. 

So what of the potential for farmers here in the UK to benefit from high-value non-food biotech crops modified for industrial or pharmaceutical uses?

Don’t ask a scientist – ask a consumer.

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