Science in Society Archive

Molecular Pharming – the New Battlefront over GM Crops

The biggest battle for democracy in the ‘heartland of democracy’ is being fought over GM crops and it has shifted to molecular pharming. Dr. Mae-Wan Ho

US Department of Agriculture caves in to pharm crops

The battlefront over GM crops in the United States and Europe has shifted to molecular pharming, the use of GM crops to produce pharmaceuticals. California-based company Ventria Bioscience has been at the forefront of pharm crops development, and has planted 75 acres of genetically engineered rice near Plymouth in Eastern North Carolina [1].

Ventria made applications to grow GM rice producing human lactoferrin and lysozyme, normally produced in human milk, saliva and tears, in California, Missouri and North Carolina, stirring up a storm of opposition. Ventria was driven out of California last year [2], and forced out of southeast Missouri earlier this year by a last minute uprising from rice farmers who feared contamination of their crops and damage to a $100 million industry that depends heavily on exports [3].

The USDA was under pressure to turn down Ventria’s request and others like it. The Grocery Manufacturers of America, representing $500 billion in annual sales, says that the government lacks a way to prevent pharmaceutical proteins from contaminating food. Advocacy groups presented Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns with 30 000 signatures asking for a ban on the use of food crops to produce pharmaceuticals. Northwest Missouri State University President Dean Hubbard insists, however, that his institution is going ahead with a $40 million agricultural pharmaceutical centre that would house Ventria and other companies.

On 30 June, the USDA approved Ventria application to grow its GM rice on 270 acres in North Carolina [3], despite opposition from scientists working at the state and federally-operated Rice Quarantine Nursery at the Tidewater Research Station, just over half a mile from the Ventria test site. USDA also cleared the way for Ventria to grow its pharm rice on 200 acres in the middle of Missouri’s chief rice-growing region, even though Ventria has already withdrawn its permit applications for that site. Anheuser-Busch, the nation’s largest brewer, had indicated it would refuse to buy any rice from southeastern Missouri’s hundreds of growers if the Ventria pharm rice was planted there. But USDA dismissed the concerns as “non-scientific” and beyond its legal purview.

Health and environmental hazards ignored

As numerous critics have pointed out, it is virtually impossible to prevent contamination of our food crops either by cross-pollination or seed spills during transport. The safety of these and other transgenic proteins for human beings is highly questionable. Prof. Joe Cummins has reviewed and submitted evidence on the potential hazards of lactoferrin and lysozyme [4]. Lactoferrin participates in the regulation of immune functions and controls pathogens by binding iron required for bacterial growth. It has been implicated in asthma with fatal consequences. Lysozyme breaks down the cell wall material of bacteria, but may contribute to emphysema. But by far the greater danger is that the transgenic proteins are only approximations of the natural protein both in DNA sequence, amino-acid sequence and patterns of glycosylation (carbohydrate chains added to the proteins), all of which may make transgenic proteins allergenic, or the transgenic proteins may trigger diseases connected with the inability of human cells to break them down properly.

As these proteins both target bacteria, there is a large question mark over the safety of these proteins to beneficial bacteria in our gut, which are now known to promote healthy development in numerous ways from cradle to grave [5]. In addition, we know nothing concerning the effects of these proteins on beneficial bacteria and other organisms in the soil, on insects, amphibians, birds and mammals that interact with the pharm rice in the fields. Another aspect virtually ignored in all risk assessment is the hazards from horizontal transfer of the transgenes to viral and bacterial pathogens that are everywhere in our environment [6].

Move to pre-empt local regulation

The North Carolina legislature is considering “preemption” bills intended to block local regulation of crop plants, including biotech crops. The bills, House Bill 671 and Senate Bill 631, were sponsored by the biotech industry and are part of a nationwide industry effort to preempt local governments from regulating any crops, including GM crops.  Similar bills have become law in at least 10 other states in the US this year, and are clearly targeted at the grassroots uprising against GM crops that has been gaining momentum over the past year (Science in Society 2004, 22 From the Editor

Patents on molecular pharming

A total of 369 patents are currently listed under “Protein products for future global good” on [7], a website that claims to have received its information from the “FAAR Biotechnology Group Inc., which provides industry, government, universities and legal counsel with expert advice, consultation and evaluation of biotechnology research, business opportunities and intellectual property matters.”

The patents date from 1990 onwards, including methods for producing antibodies, vaccines, proteins, flavourings, biodegradable plastics, methods for metabolic interventions that change the nutrition and composition of seeds, recovery methods for the proteins produced, for viral systems and viral vectors used in plants, and methods for molecular farming by chloroplast transformation.

Article first published 19/07/05


  1. “Grain of doubt. Genetically modified rice in Eastern North Carolina is setting off a whirlwind of criticism and concern”, David Rice, Journal Raleigh,  Sunday 10 July 2005.
  2. Cummins J. Pharm crop stalled for now. Science in Society 2004, 22, 28-29.
  3. “Ventria puts off pharmaceutical rice”, Bill Lambrecht, Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau, St. Louis, Post Dispatch 28 April 2005.
  4. Cummins J. Human proteins in GM rice linked to diseases. Science in Society 2004, 22, 30.
  5. Gala R. Health-promoting germs. Science in Society 2005, 26, 43.
  6. Ho MW, Lim LC et al The Case for a GM-Free Sustainable World,  ISIS and TWN, London and Penang 2003; also GM-Free, Vital Health Publishing, Ridgefield, CT, 2004.
  7. Molecular Protein products for future global good.

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