Antibiotics may soon be produced by tobacco plants if the Canadian government approves controversial molecular farming technology.
Plant molecular farming uses plants in agriculture to produce products other than food, feed or fibre. Certain plants can be genetically modified to act as ‘factories,’ manufacturing pharmaceutical drugs, vaccines, bioplastics and industrial chemicals.
University of Calgary communication and culture professor Dr. Edna Einsiedel led a public consultation between Oct. 2006 and Feb. 2007, allowing Canadians to offer input regarding the use of the technology. The consultation involved both online and face-to-face aspects.
“The consultation was held nationwide in French and English,” said Einsiedel. “Four hundred people were interviewed regarding their views on the technology.”
The consultation was limited to “involved Canadians,” selected based on their voting habits, attention to news and participation in civic organizations, said Einsiedel.
“We were looking for people who have high levels of attention to public affairs,” she said.
Twelve panelists participated in the face-to-face aspect and composed a report which was submitted to Agriculture Canada and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. Panelists spent two weekends in Calgary learning about plant molecular farming.
“The first weekend panelists attended talks from experts, regulators, scientists, ecologists and environmental organizations,” said Einsiedel. “The second weekend was spent in deliberations regarding the information and writing the report.”
The report supported the use of the technology, but warned the government to proceed with caution due to the risks involved in plant molecular farming. The panelists expressed concerns over accidental contamination of the food chain, genetic contamination, harm to domestic and wild animals as well as soil and water contamination.
“Tight mitigation is needed for this technology to be successful,” said Einsiedel. “Plants should never be grown in the open. They need to be tightly controlled in confinement to reduce the risks.”
Despite the risks, the panelists recognized the benefits of using the technology.
“Plant molecular farming may be a cheaper way of producing things,” said Einsiedel. “This may have major benefits for people in developing countries who lack the resources for normal production of life-saving vaccines.”
Though molecular farming has not been approved in Canada for commercial field production, the technology is currently used in the U.S. and parts of Europe.