Sunday, April 8, 2007

Insulin in your vegetable oil?

Hot on the heels of the splendidly stupid Spiegel article on BT-corn and bees, comes this new article from the New York Times about genetically modified plants. The author manages to inject a few fairly sensible points before descending into anti-intellectual fear mongering.

The article raises issues that I have commented about elsewhere: that there are real concerns to be debated in the use of genetically modified food (though largely, these issues have been ignored in the popular press - major news organizations prefer the tidier, if uninformed Monsanto vs. Greenpeace debate). I've written a bit of a primer here, for anyone who wants to brush up on what genetically modified food is (in more descriptive terms than "Frankenfoods" that groups like Greenpeace employ).

One of my concerns in the use of genetically modified foods is in the production of pharmaceuticals. Many companies have decided that putting genes into plants is cheaper and easier than growing vats of bacteria under sterile conditions. You may not realize this, but since the 1980s most human insulin that is produced in the pharmaceutical industry is produced in genetically engineered Escherichia coli that contains the human insulin gene. It's cheaper to produce (and more humane) than chopping up pigs, and it's actual human insulin instead of pig insulin (pig insulin is similar, but has slightly different properties).

Now, various companies have decided that it's even easier to produce insulin (and other similar pharmaceuticals) in plants. That way, rather than having to employ microbiologists, and maintain expensive sterile manufacturing plants, they can merely sell seed to farmers, and buy back the genetically modified plants (and purify the insulin from the plant). Sound great? Well, yes. Mostly. It should make many drugs a lot cheaper and safer than they currently are. Who doesn't want cheaper, safer drugs? Farmers will work for less than microbiologists, which cuts costs. And plants have none of the nasty things that you have to worry about in bacteria (for example, the fever inducing LPS molecule). So purification is simpler. Wonderful. But what about contamination of neighbouring crops? What happens when your biopharmaceutical gets mixed in with the regular food supply. This is (and should be) a major concern. Granted, insulin is probably not one to worry too much about, but what about blood thinners and painkillers? Clearly, we need to ensure that these plants don't find their way into the food supply. How to do this? From the New York Times article:

“I don’t think that engineering plants for pharma is a bad idea, with two caveats,” Professor Ellstrand said. One, he says he thinks that planting should be done in greenhouses rather than in open fields. “The other issue is food,” he said. “Why do we have to do this in food crops? It doesn’t matter what you’re squeezing the compound out of. It could be a carnation, a corn plant or a castor bean.”
I concur. In the case of pharmaceuticals where we know that the active molecule will be bioavailable, let's keep this stuff out of general circulation, because accidents do happen. No one would worry about genetically engineered poplar trees getting into the food supply.

The article continues:
Once the rogue seeds are replanted, could the plants thrive in their new home and possibly overtake native varieties or wild relatives? Could the pharma trait increase in frequency and concentration, until it reaches a “dose” that causes health effects in those who consume it unwittingly? The probability for any one of these situations may be low, Professor Ellstrand said, but the scientific answer to each question is yes.
Well, the probability that umbrellas cause cancer is low, but is it possible? Scientifically, yes. But let's make our decisions based on rational cost/benefit analysis, not merely on what is "possible".

Now the article-writer starts to get a little ridiculous:
But there is some scientific evidence not acknowledged in biopharma risk assessments that casts a dark cloud over this silver lining. For starters, the “system” under discussion is nature, and despite our best efforts it always manages to elude our puny attempts at controlling it.
What does that mean? This evokes a "Jurassic Park"-like scenario, of hybrid canola-Tyrannosaurus rex terrorizing the countryside. We have actually done a lot to manage nature. Have you ever seen anything that looks like a cow in nature? How about a wheat plant? These have been highly managed, and yet very few have escaped and "contaminated" the wild. Reason being, our modifications don't make positive fitness changes to the plant. They make them more commercially valuable, but much less viable in the wild.

Scientists often dismiss the idea that people without technical knowledge can help them make risk assessments. As a result, biotech scientists and regulators have long made safety determinations from within an opaque system of their own design, using only the evidence they accept as valid.
Should we be having plumbers determining health risk of heart drugs? And using data about global-warming that science fiction authors think are valid? What about genetically-modified foods? I think what we want as a society is a well-educated, independent regulatory organization, like the FDA, not a group of parents at a PTA meeting.
But scientific evidence is not a constant, like the speed of light or pi. Especially in biology, where we still know so little, “evidence” is often just a small circle of light surrounded by the darkness of the unknown. Decisions about risk cannot safely be made in a private club that accepts only its members’ notions of scientific evidence.
Oy. What an anti-intellectual load of crap. Yes, decisions about risk can be made by people who accept scientific evidence as valid. The author is basically saying that everyone's opinion on safety matters. This is simply not true. I have no idea how airplanes are built. I should clearly get a voice in saying that I would like the airplanes I travel on to be safe, but I shouldn't be the person deciding which particular rivets should be used in an aircraft (or deciding that any particular airplane is safe - I'm simply not qualified). A safety determination is going to be best made by someone with the education to make it. We just need to ensure that the folks making said decisions are sufficiently independent from the businesses applying for permits to grow this stuff.

(edited for clarity - I wrote this rather late last night)



Mike Haubrich said...

I like this article, and it brought to mind a story on NPR last week. Unfortunately, I was only paying half the attention to it that I should have been (considering that I was driving, I make excuses for safety.) A hay farmer in one of the western states was concerned about strains of genetically modified alfalfa spreading through other farmer's fields. I had a question as to the specific nature of the GM that had been done to the alfalfa and the danger that it posed from spreading. Neither question was addressed in the story.

It seemed like a blanket "we don't like Genetic Modification, and this is the reason that everyone should be alarmed" story. I can imagine that there may be some concerns about it, and I am woefully not up on the science, but is anti-GM alarm as much on the "woo" side of environmentalism as I think it is?

It seems so from your entry, here.

Anonymous said...

How do you explain this then, Factician? Monsanto's GM Maize has been proven to cause liver toxicity in rats, a study that Greenpeace had to go to the courts to get released (as Monsanto certainly didn't want that info made public)

Watch the video provided in the link, it has English translation.

The Factician said...

Mr/Ms. Anonymous,

I suspect that you placed the similar comment elsewhere, and I've addressed it fairly thoroughly. You can find my response in the comments here: