Science in Society Archive

Poison Pharm Crops Near You

Pharm crops are crops genetically modified to produce gene products that are pharmaceutically active. Such bio-pharmaceuticals are frequently active in minute quantities and expensive to produce in cell cultures or whole animals, and so the companies turn to crop plants. Prof. Joe Cummins reveal how these plants are poisoning our air, soil and water with potentially disastrous health consequences.

The range of products currently being produced using mammalian genes introduced into crop plants includes vaccines, immune control proteins such as cytokines, growth hormones and enzymes [1, 2]. There have been a number of field trials of pharm crops in North America but it is difficult to determine the full extent of the trials because they are not regulated in the way that genetically modified food crops are.

In Canada, the field trials are regulated and monitored by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) and the regulation of the products as drugs is not considered until the crop is ready for commercial production. At such a time, the Therapeutic Products Directorate of Health Canada reviews the safety of the product to humans. Thus, the environmental and health impacts of the crops are completely ignored.

In a field test in Ontario near the city of London, the pharm crop is tobacco genetically modified with the gene for the human cytokine, interleukin 10, combined with the cauliflower mosaic virus promoter and the transcription terminator from Agrobacterium [3]. Interleukin 10 is known to be a powerful immunosuppressive. The modified tobacco plants had previously been selected to contain low alkaloid content and to be male sterile (to produce little or no pollen). The field trials were presumed to be safe and approved by CFIA because it was believed that no transgenic tobacco pollen would be produced to fertilize tobacco or weedy relatives.

The CFIA was constituted a few years ago from bureaucrats in Agriculture Canada, with a strong bias towards genetically modified food crops and no apparent expert knowledge of pharmaceuticals and their impact on humans. There was little or no effort to monitor release of interleukin 10 from the tobacco plants in the field, which may follow wounding of the plant parts, normal breakage of feeder roots, damage by sucking insects and other predators. Post harvest root breakdown will also release significant amounts of the immunosuppressant to surface and groundwater and pollute drinking water wells (both dug wells and drilled wells).

Those exposed to the juices of wounded transgenic tobacco as well as those exposed to surface and groundwater from the test plots might become compromised in their ability to resist viral infections.

The possibility that entire fields of plants containing trillions of human interleukin 10 genes may transfer that gene to human viruses should not be ignored. A gene homologous to human interleukin 10 in cytomegalovirus was found to be powerfully immunosuppressive [4]. In other words, a virus with interleukin 10 could be deadly, as it disarms our immune system during an infection.

Furthermore, the human interleukin 10 gene could be mobilized by recombination through contact with insect Baculovirus both in the plant and in the soil. Baculovirses are known to cause nonpathogenic infections of human cells [5] and in that way recombination could create further "superviruses" by contact between baculovirus and any of number of human viruses.

A super virus was accidentally created when another immunosuppressive cytokine, interleukin 4, was combined with mouse pox virus [6]. Viruses with interleukin 10 could become "doomsday" pathogens.

This dangerous field experiment in Canada was undertaken with little public knowledge and discussion. Neither of those responsible for regulating or for testing such dangerous biopharmaceuticals appears to have any regard for the hazards involved. Unfortunately, similar field trials may well have been conducted in the United States and in Europe with equal disregard for environmental and health impacts.

ISIS has been trying to draw attention to this regulatory loophole repeatedly since 1998, and to demand that such bio-pharmaceuticals should be produced in strictly contained facilities [7].

Send copies of this report to your governments, to demand a stop to such unregulated testing of biopharmaceuticals in the open field.

Article first published 07/03/02


  1. Giddings G, Allison G, Brooks D and Carter C. Transgenic plants as factories for biopharmaceuticals Nature Biotechnology 2000, 18,1151-6
  2. Giddings G. Transgenic plants as protein factories Current Opinion in Biotechnology 2001, 12, 450-4
  3. Menassa R, Nguyen V, Jevnikar A and Brindle J. A self-contained system for the field production of plant recombinant interleukin-10. Molecular Breeding 2001, 8,177-85
  4. Spencer J, Lockridge K, Barry P, Gaofeng L, Tsang M, Penfield M and Schall T. Potent immunosuppressive activities of cytomegalovirus encoded interleukin-10. J Virol 2002, 76,1285-92
  5. "Gene therapy with your salads, anyone?" by Joe Cummins, 2001 Isis news 9/10
  6. "Genetic Engineering Super Viruses" by Mae-Wan Ho, 2001 Isis news 9/10
  7. Ho MW and Steinbrecher RA. Fatal flaws in food safety assessment: critique of the joint FAO/WHO Biotechnology and Food Safety Report. Environmental & Nutritional Interactions 1998, 2, 51-84.

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