If you’ve ever wondered: Are there drugs in my Wheaties? I can assure you there are not—at least not unless your very shady trainer is trying to get you to win the Tour de France. But if the talk today at AAAS (“Drugs in Our Corn Flakes? Our Health and the Economic Risks of ‘Pharma’ and Industrial Crops”) is at all a marker of things to come with the marriage of pharmaceuticals and agriculture, that breakfast of champions might require a prescription.
The idea of pharmaceuticals made out of plants is not a new one, it’s about as new as, well, the idea that we could genetically engineer our plants to provide more of those things that we want—bug repellents, big ears, and higher oil content. All these things have been done and so far they have caused no physical harm to anyone (let us note here that the results of this giant experiment with our food is quite preliminary).
Today, Paul Gepts, Robert Wizner, and Charles Arntzen give us mixed messages on whether or not we should be tampering with the genes of our food sources for the greater good. Here are two tales from the discussion: a cautionary tale and a tale of hope.
First, the bad news: Genetically modified foods can cost farmers, businesses, governments, and you (the consumer) loads of money. When genes co-mingle with food or feed (and “accidents do happen,” the panelists assure us), problems trickle down.
In 2000, Starlink Corn, genetically modified corn approved only for US feedstock, got airborne and soon became part of a variety of corn that ended up on the shelves as, of all things, taco shells. This was not a mass contamination—less than one-half of one percent of U.S. corn acreage was effected. Still, over 22 retail food stores recalled those taco shells, and it took several years for “full recovery of economic risks,” with mounds of corn seeds piling up in silos that would never again gain approval for human consumption. Although this wasn’t an apparent health problem—the corn was approved for consumption by animals, after all—the economic panic was very real and showed what some gusts of wind could do to a product whose genes are very precious (and can cause you jail time if sold in Japan).
The tale of hope lies in making a better vaccine. Hepatitis B was the first biotech vaccine ever created, meaning it was basically grown in large processing plants that made innovative use of yeast. This process lead to a vaccine that was cost-effective and easy to make—at least, for those with readily accessible medical care and an ability to receive refrigerated goods. Outside of countries with lots of money, however, refrigeration, shipping, and medical care (for the needle delivery of the vaccine) are hard to come by. This made an otherwise cheap vaccine (costing around $0.25 for the vaccine itself) cost-prohibitive. This means that places that really need the vaccine—the Third World—can’t get it.
The solution? Grow it. In a clinical trial, Hepatitis B was manipulated to live in potatoes and turned out to be just as effective as the needle-delivered yeast-derived vaccine. Instead of shipping potatoes, people could grind the plants down into pills for a vaccine that costs about $0.13 with oral delivery and no need for long-distance refrigeration. But don’t worry, there’s still no Hepatitis B vaccine in your Wheaties—the process has yet to be commercially tried.
It’s a tempting prospect: vaccines grown in tomatoes, onions, and broccoli and processed cheaply for all. But as long as the winds blow and plants do what they have learned to do best (reproduce), there’s a lot to prove that a pharmacy won’t accidentally make it’s way into your food.