do we need rice with human genes
Despite repeated scandals involving the contamination of rice seed stocks with GM variants, the US government has given preliminary approval for the large-scale planting of GM rice strains containing human genes.
Having apparently abandoned plans to use their GM rice as an additive to animal feedstuffs, Ventria Bioscience is initially aiming to market their human protein-producing rice as a cure for diarrhoea in developing countries. Since diarrhoea can be highly effectively and inexpensively treated with simple rehydration salts, producing a GM alternative is clearly an absurdity. This has led to speculation that sick children in developing countries are being used in a cynical campaign of pretence suggesting that Ventria Bioscience is motivated by altruism. Their longer-term plans are to include the GM human proteins in yoghurt, granola bars and sport re-hydration drinks.
Do we really need a GM cure for diarrhoea? Is it acceptable to release GM rice into the environment where it will inevitably contaminate other rice strains? Do we really find it acceptable to consume human proteins? Even Ventria’s own scientific publications have raised questions about safety.
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has recently taken the first steps towards allowing the large-scale cultivation of three varieties of genetically manipulated (GM) rice containing human genes.1 These rice strains, created by the California-based company Ventria Bioscience, have been genetically engineered to carry the human genes encoding lactoferrin, lysozyme, or serum albumin. After a public comment period, which ended on 30 March 2007, a decision will be taken on whether to allow these GM strains to be cultivated on 3,200 acres of land in Kansas, USA. Earlier plans by Ventria Bioscience to grow the rice in Southern Missouri were blocked resulting from the safety concerns of brewing company Anheuser-Busch which threatened to boycott rice grown in the state if the plan went ahead.
Almost simultaneously with this announcement, the USDA revealed the discovery that rice seed stocks in Arkansas had become contaminated with a different GM strain, LL62, which had never been approved for commercial production. This embarrassing discovery was made during an investigation into the widespread contamination of US rice by yet another GM strain, LL601, raising serious concerns about the safety measures in place to contain GM crops.
Rice with a human touch?
Each GM strain created by Ventria Bioscience contains a human gene encoding one of three proteins: lactoferrin, lysozyme, or serum albumin. Lactoferrin and lysozyme are antimicrobial proteins found, in human breast milk, and in tears and saliva. Serum albumin is one of the protein constituents of human blood.
But what’s it for?
Initially, Ventria Bioscience tested its GM lactoferrin and lysozyme as a possible addition to animal feedstuffs, as an alternative to antibiotics.2 The widespread use of antibiotics in animal feedstuffs is well documented to have led to the emergence of antibiotic-resistant microorganisms, potentially endangering human health.3,4 After feeding the recombinant human proteins to chicks, in Delhi, California, Ventria concluded that they had found a potential alternative to adding subtherapeutic levels of antibiotics to animal feedstuffs. They did, however, point out that“..there is no indication that bacteria have become resistant to these proteins in nature. However, the development of bacterial resistance after prolonged feeding of these proteins has yet to be examined.”2
Having apparently abandoned plans to market the GM rice for animal feedstuffs, Ventria have now tested it on children in Peru as a possible treatment for paediatric diarrhoea.5 Elsewhere, they have talked about plans to include it in yoghurt, sports drinks, and granola bars.6
Do we really need a GM treatment for Diarrhea?
Although diarrhoea causes more than 2 million deaths per year, mostly in developing countries, its causes are well understood and its treatment simple and reliable. Most cases of diarrhoea last only a day or two, and the patient fully recovers without any treatment at all. Only in more prolonged cases is treatment required to prevent the patient becoming from dehydrated. In such cases, the administration of simple oral rehydration salts is highly effective.
The GM human proteins were tested on Peruvian children as an addition to oral rehydration therapy. One third of the patients received conventional oral rehydration salts, one third received a rice-based oral rehydration salts, and the others received the rice-based therapy with the addition of the GM human proteins.5 Ventria did not claim that this led to a higher recovery rate, since all the children recovered, but that the addition of the GM proteins increased the speed with which the patients recovered. Simply put, the children treated with the oral rehydration salts plus the GM human proteins recovered in about 4 days, rather than about 5 days.5 Hardly the miracle cure that Ventria would like us to believe.
Since diarrhoea can be very effectively treated with simple and inexpensive oral rehydration salts, which are easily transported and can be stored without refrigeration, do developing countries really need to buy a more expensive, genetically manipulated alternative from Ventria Biosciences? Clearly not.
But is it safe?
Following the trial in Peru, questions have been raised whether the parents of the children were adequately informed that the experimental treatment involved GM human proteins. This has led to an inquiry in Peru.7 Safety issues were also raised when the parents of some of the children in the trial claimed that their children had subsequently suffered allergic reactions.8
The GM proteins have biological activity in human beings, but have never been tested as a drug and have never received FDA approval for use as a drug. So nobody can claim with complete certainty that they pose no danger to human health.
As stated earlier, following their own testing of the GM rice on chicks, Ventria themselves concluded that, “..there is no indication that bacteria have become resistant to these proteins in nature. However, the development of bacterial resistance after prolonged feeding of these proteins has yet to be examined.”2 Surely their own concerns apply equally to human beings? This of course, raises profound safety concerns regarding their plans to include GM proteins in yoghurt, sports drinks, and granola bars.
What about containment?
Since there are clearly safety questions concerning the consumption of these GM human proteins, how can we be sure when we buy a bag of rice that it has not been contaminated with a GM strain? We can’t. As mentioned above, there are already well documented – and very recent – examples of GM rice contaminating rice destined for human consumption. No matter what safety measures are put in place, mistakes will always happen.
Also, when a GM organism is released into the environment, it is probably going to be out there, in some form or other, forever. Cross pollination can transfer GM traits into regular strains. Do we have the right to take such decisions on behalf of future generations?
And another ethical issue...
The recent contamination scandals in the USA have indicated that it is very likely that Ventria’s GM rice would eventually find its way onto our plates, if their plans were allowed to proceed. Even aside from any safety issues, we all have to ask ourselves if we find it acceptable to eat human proteins in any form at all. If Ventria were to go ahead with plans to include their GM human proteins in yoghurt, would we really find it ethically acceptable to eat that yoghurt? In countries such as India, where a significant proportion of the population is vegetarian, is it ethically acceptable to introduce an ‘animal’ protein into one of the staples of their diet, let alone a human protein?
Any one of the issues raised would be sufficient to convince almost anybody that permission should not be granted for the large-scale planting of Ventria’s GM rice. But taken together, the environmental, health and safety, and ethical issues, surely add up to an overpowering argument that the plans of Ventria Bioscience to cultivate GM rice containing human genes must be stopped.
Department of Agriculture, Animal and Plant Health Inspection Services. Ventria Bioscience; Availability of an environmental assessment for field tests of rice genetically engineered to express lactoferrin, lysozyme, or serum albumin. Docket No. APHIS-2007-006, Federal Register Vol. 72, No. 30, Wednesday, February 28, 2007. Available from: http://www.epa.gov/fedrgstr/EPA-IMPACT/2007?February/Day-28/i3484.htm
Humphrey, BD, Huang, N, Klasing, KC. Rice expressing lactoferrin and lysozyme has antibiotic-like properties when fed to chicks. J Nutrition. 2002;132:1214-1218.
World Health Organisation. Overcoming antimicrobial resistance: WHO report on infectious diseases (2000) WHO, Geneva, Switzerland.
World Health Organisation Fact Sheet No 194, WHO, Geneva, Switzerland.
Zavaleta, N, Figueroa, D, Rivera, J, Sanchez, J, Alfaro, S, Lonnerdal, B. Efficacy of rice-based oral rehydration solution containing recombinant human lactoferrin and lysozyme in Peruvian children with acute diarrhea. J Pediatr Gastroenterol. 2007;44:258-264.
http://www.aphis.usda.gov/brs/aphisdocs/04_30901r_ea.pdf. See corresponding citation for lactoferrin at http://www.aphis.usda.gov/brs/aphisdocs/04_30201r_ea.pdf
Leighton, P. Study on infants in Peru sparks ethics inquiry. Science and Development Network, July 18, 2006.http://www.scidev.net/content/news/eng/study-on-infants-in-peru-sparks-ethics-inquiry.cfm
Diaz, D. Transgénicos: Niños ya sufren sus efectos. La Republica, Peru, July 14, 2006.