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Pharming the Field: A Look at the Benefits and Risks of Bioengineering Plants to Produce Pharmaceuticals

In 2002, the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology held a conference bringing together representatives from the biotechnology, pharmaceuticals and food industries, government regulators, scientists and public interest groups to consider the use of transgenic plants as cost-effective "biofactories" for producing pharmaceuticals.

Participants considered the possible risks posed to human and animal health and the environment, by the potential for cross-pollination between pharma crops and wild relatives or crops destined for food or feed. The conference also looked at the steps being taken by the biotechnology industry and US government regulators to control these risks, and discussed whether these are sufficient, both to address the risks and to secure public confidence.

Some insights were particularly relevant to developing countries. Whereas scientists once expected to see the development of pharma crops that could be consumed directly by people (e.g. "edible vaccines"), the need to ensure correct dosage and quality control means that some level of processing will be necessary. This, together with the need for rigorous regulation and effective segregation of pharma crops, will place high demands on technical capacities and regulatory agencies in developing countries.

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