Friday, July 14, 2006

Pharming in Peru

Sometimes it's hard to know the roots of (sometimes highly emotive) opposition to genetically modified foods: is it purely issue about safety, or is it also about something else, the way that biotechnology is merging and mixing things we thought were distinct, and threatening to disrupt our conception of the order of things? Add to this the skepticism towards profit-seeking pharmaceutical companies, and you are bound to have food for bioethical argument, pun intended.

Take the latest research ethics controversy in Peru. The US biotech company Ventria Biosciences has been testing genetically modified rice there as a tool against childhood diarrhea, which claims the lives of millions of children in the developing world every year. Ventria is testing rice modified with synthetic human genes in order to produce lysozyme, a protein which is found in mother's milk and which aids rehydration. A Peruvian-lead study indicates that the 'genetically enhanced' rice powder speeds rehydration of babies by around 40%. So what's the problem, or problems?

One problem concerns the production of the genetically modified rice crop: there is a fear of contamination of 'normal' rice crops, and the subsequent entry of lysozyme-releasing rice into the commerical food chain. Ventria has already been booted out of Missouri and California, the boot taking the form mostly of Anheuser-Busch Inc. and other powerful rice interests, who know that their biggest consumer base (the Japanese) is not thrilled about genetically modified food. Who would want to eat Uncle Ben's thinking that mother's milk-imitating enzymes were stuck in there? Ventria's spokespersons try to point out that rice is self-pollinating, so the 'gene flow' normally associated with transgenic plants should be minimized. Maybe so. But once the spooky idea is in your head, it is hard to get out.

Another problem concerns (international) research ethics: do Ventria's Peruvian experiments involve the use of untested substances on babies in a country with lax regulations? According to Dr. Herberth Cuba, who runs the Peruvian Medical Association, that is exactly what is going on. It does not inspire confidence that Ventria has applied to the FDA to consider lysozyme "Generally Regarded as Safe" (or GRAS), a rather disquieting classification that apparently would spare Ventria the bother of running a clinical trial on its rice before children eat it in their studies. Of course, this would not be a genuine bioethics issue if opponents did not say the diametrical opposite: the untested substances in question are no more dangerous than mother's milk, the Peruvian studies have gone through stringent ethical review, and studies using Ventria's proteins are also being conducted with elderly hospitalized patients in undisclosed locations in the USA. But once the 'exploited developing world babies eating weird rice' picture gets in your head ...


Blogger quixote said...

Spread of genes into related plants in the environment is a huge issue, glossed over much too quickly by the companies genetically engineering food. I don't know how big an issue that is with lysozymes. (Their function is to lyse, or dissolve, cells. It's not hard to imagine other effects besides rehydration. Will it generate irritable bowel syndrome in sensitive people? Will the rehydration negatively affect people with failing kidneys?)

But assuming for the moment that the gene flow problem is somehow solved, there is a purely ethical question: Why isn't it required for genetically modified food to be labelled as such? We have food labelling laws because people have a right to know what they're eating. So why is it suddenly acceptable for Monsanto to wave its hands, insist RoundUp Ready soybeans are so safe nobody needs to know a thing, and the labelling laws are shelved because otherwise people might avoid the food? Either we can forget about all the labelling laws, or we need to backtrack on this one.

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