Science in Society Archive

Ban Plant-based Transgenic Pharmaceuticals

Prof. Joe Cummins and Dr. Mae-Wan Ho call for a global forum and a ban on testing pharm crops, especially in Third World countries

As one after another biotech giant retreated from genetically modified (GM) crops for food and feed in Europe (see "Biotech investment busy going nowhere", SiS 23), the industry is redoubling its efforts to develop plant-based transgenic pharmaceuticals in North America and elsewhere.

In April 2004, California stalled a major attempt to introduce GM rice producing human lactoferrin and lyzozyme into 10 counties [1], but efforts to use rice and other food crops to produce hazardous pharmaceuticals have continued unabated [2- 4].

On 12 July, the European Union (EU) announced the award of 12 million euros to a network of laboratories in 11 European countries plus South Africa to explore the possibilities of producing pharmaceuticals grown in genetically modified plants [5]. The consortium, "Pharma-Planta", will use plants to produce vaccines and treatments against major diseases including AIDS, rabies, diabetes and TB. Human trials of the drugs are to begin within the next five years. The project is co-ordinated in the UK by Prof. Julian Ma of St. George's Medical School London; and John Innes Centre, UK's top GM crop research institute is also a member of the consortium.

A day later, it was revealed that South Africa, the only member of the consortium outside Europe, is to be the test site of the first pharm crops [6]. South Africa's Council for Scientific and Industrial Research is particularly interested in potential vaccines against HIV. Philip Dale, plant technologist at John Innes Centre in Norwich and the project's biosafety co-ordinator, reportedly said that the cost of 24-hour surveillance of GM fields in the UK has made it expensive to conduct similar trials in Britain.

The use of Third World countries for testing and producing plant-based pharmaceuticals unacceptable both in Europe and the United States smacks of colonialism. It also raises the spectre of unmonitored and unregulated human exposures to the dangerous products. This problem will be exacerbated as opposition to pharm crops is growing in the United States, and more Third World countries will be targeted for test sites and production facilities. I-SIS has played a key role in exposing the marketing of pharm crop products in the United States previously unbeknownst to the public, via a gaping loophole in the US regulatory system [7].

A coalition of consumer and environmental organizations in the US issued a call for a moratorium on genetically engineered pharm crops on 21 July. They want the California state agencies to conduct a rigorous investigation of the potential hazards posed by a biotech company's plan to produce pharmaceutical drugs from genetically engineered rice [8].

There is an urgent need for proper international regulation on the testing and production of plant-based pharmaceuticals. The first step may be a wider discussion of the drawbacks and dangers of plant-based pharmaceuticals as well the "advantages" put forward by proponents in academe and corporations. The overlooked dangers of pharm crops include pharmaceuticals that are toxic, that could produce immune sensitization followed by anaphylaxis, or oral tolerance leading to loss of immunity to pathogens; and general loss of confidence in the food supply. These have been discussed in numerous reviews from the Institute of Science in Society [1-4, 7, 9-11].

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has run a number of electronic conferences around "Agricultural Biotechnology for Developing Countries - an Electronic Forum". These moderated discussions have been quite productive. It is time to have an electronic forum on "Plant-based Pharmaceuticals in Developing Countries".

Do contact the administrator of the FAO project Dr. John Ruane, at to call for such a forum as a matter of urgency. The FAO forums are described at the following URL:

It is important that the testing and production of plant-based pharmaceutical in the third world are made public before they are quietly and extensively carried out without the informed consent of those directly affected.

Meanwhile, it is imperative to impose a ban on field test releases and biopharmaceutical production by multinational corporations and foundations, especially in Third World countries.

Article first published 29/07/04


  1. Cummins,J. Pharm crop stalled for now. Science in Society 2004,22, 28-9
  2. Cummins J. Human proteins in GM Rice linked to diseases. Science in Society 2004, 22, 30.
  3. Cummins J. Cancer promoting transgenic rice. Science in Society 2004, 22, 31.
  4. Cummins J. Pharm crops for vaccines and therapeutic antibodies. ISIS report (to be circulated).
  5. "Medical experts plan GM 'pharming' project", by Tim Moynihan, The Scotsman, 12 July 2004.
  6. "South Africa may test first 'pharming' crop" Cape Times, July 13 2004
  7. Cummins J. Pharm crop products in US market. I-SIS report 26 June 2004; also Science in Society 2004, 23.
  8. "Experimental Pharmaceutical Rice May Pose Serious Health and Environmental Hazards" Center for Food Safety Press release, July 21, 2004
  9. Cummins J. Risks of edible transgenic vaccines. Science in Society 2003, 17, 2.
  10. Ho MW. Pharmageddon. Science in Society 2003,17, 23.
  11. Cummins J. Poison pharm crops near you. Science in Society 2002, 15,16.

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