Tuesday, January 04, 2005

Brand New Ideas, Same Old Thinking

Flann O'Brien once argued that each instance of scientific progress actually increases the sum total of human ignorance, by creating more uncertainty than it dispels. I don't know if I'd go quite that far, but in terms of his example - the splitting of the atom - he was surely correct.

Biopharming is another case where O'Brien's warning holds true. This article demonstrates the danger of promoting revolutionary scientific concepts without a complementary change in attitude (registration required, but you can get a password from BugMeNot).

Think of fields as factories. Rice and barley could yield wonder drugs, transformed from dinner table staples to medical miracles by laboratory gene tinkering.

Ventria Bioscience, a small California company hoping to reap the harvest of so-called biopharming, is moving a handful of employees and the promise of a blossoming science to Missouri.

Yet the move of Ventria from Sacramento to Maryville, and its plans to plant crops in small plots in northwest and eastern Missouri, brings with it a new chapter of biotech agriculture that has run into resistance around the country and the world.

The chief worry is that drug-brewing crops might contaminate the food supply — scaring the marketplace from using ordinary commodity crops out of fear of drug-laced grain.
Again, new technology requires new thinking; grafting a technological innovation onto an existing conceptual model can be like strapping a jet engine to a tricycle. Lord knows I dislike the concept of pharmaceutical plants, but even if I put that dislike aside, I still notice a couple of things wrong with the assumptions here.

First off, they seem to think that because they're planting crops, they must plant them outside, because that's what farmers do. In my opinion, they're operating under the wrong paradigm; the situation is more analogous to working with infectious agents. Crops like these should be grown in special buildings that maintain negative pressure, and people who work in them should wear special clothes and go through decontamination on leaving. This would have the added advantage of not letting the plants be eaten by insects and animals, which could carry the drug-producing genes throughout the food chain. (It'd also prevent activists from destroying the crops.)

Second - and the article does make this point - there's no reason to use food crops for producing pharmaceuticals. In food crops like rice and corn, genetic contamination with pharmaceutical-producing genes could effectively destroy American agriculture. Using a non-food plant would at least protect conventional and organic farms. Unfortunately, most of the knowledge about bioengineering is geared towards food crops, and there's a strong resistance to doing things differently.

Scott Deeter, the president of Ventria, says that these safeguards are unnecessary because "It's a closed system." That's an interesting claim to make about a system in which a self-replicating organism has been placed into the environment. The fact is, the only way to reduce risk to the bare minimum is to grow these crops indoors, using the protocols appropriate to infectious agents. If that's too expensive and unwieldy, then the technology's too expensive and unwieldy.

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