Front Lines is a guest viewpoint section offering perspectives on current issues and events from people working on the front lines of Canada’s technology industry. Robert Wager is a member of the Biology Department at Malaspina University College in Nanaimo, B.C.

For centuries, aboriginal peoples have known the aspirin-like compound found in the bark of willow tree would ease pain. More recently, a random deposit of a fungus spore on a bacterial culture started Sir Alexander Fleming on the road to discovering penicillin. Although plants have always been a source of medicines, modern biotechnology has created a twist on what will be considered a medicinal plant.

It can be argued the first medical product of biotechnology was recombinant human insulin. By inserting the human insulin gene into a bacterium, scientists created “Humulin.” It became a commercial product to treat people with diabetes in 1982. Recombinant human insulin has made life much better for diabetics, who no longer suffer the complications of using insulin isolated from pigs.

Today, scientists are using recombinant DNA technologies and common agricultural plants to produce a wide range of pharmaceutical compounds. These medicine-producing engineered plants are often called pharma-crops. Scientists have successfully inserted genes into barley, maize, carrots, tomatoes, alfalfa, bananas, rice and tobacco. The engineered genes range from those that code for proteins found in milk and tears, to potential vaccines.

There has been a large outcry about a biotech pharma-crop that was recently planned to be grown in California and then later in Missouri. The biotech crop is rice and the engineered proteins are lactoferrin and lysozyme. These two human proteins can be found in breast milk, saliva and tears. They hardly represent a dire threat to our food supply, as many media stories have stated. Recently, such stories convinced a major beer producer to not buy any rice grown in the vicinity of these engineered crops. Why? Because critics have spread fear that these engineered rice crops could contaminate other rice fields by cross-pollination.

The problem with that story is that rice self-pollinates and therefore does not spread its pollen to the wind. There are also very conservative, mandatory geographic isolation and harvesting procedures to reduce the chances of cross-pollination to near zero for all pharma-crops. Those who demand zero risk do not seem to understand there is no such thing as risk-free anything.

The production of these two proteins in large quantities may help reduce infant mortality in many parts of the world. Bacterial infections cause severe diarrhoea that kill millions of children in the developing world each year. Lactoferrin and lysozyme have been proven to help reduce these bacterial infections.

Unfortunately, it is all too common to read or watch a story that greatly exaggerates a scary aspect of biotechnology. Somehow the positive side of the story never seems to be given equal exposure. It is important that we look at the whole risk/benefit evaluation for this biotech crop and stop publishing only the hypothetical risks. There are millions of children who could benefit from this engineered rice.

It may be that the demands of critics will slow the use of food crops for pharmaceutical production in the near future, but that does not mean that these technologies will stop. Non-food crops like tobacco are becoming a favourite of biotechnology researchers. There is something deliciously ironic about tobacco becoming a major medicine-generating crop.

Research has shown promising results in the production of Insulin-like Growth Factor (IGF-1) in both rice and tobacco. Injection of this human protein is one of the few treatments that slow the progress of Lou Gehrig’s disease. Similar successes have been demonstrated with plant derived genetically engineered monoclonal antibodies that protect against rabies and colorectal cancer.

Read More: