In case you hadn’t heard, human genes that code for three proteins—lactoferrin (an iron-binding antibacterial found in breast milk), lysozyme (an antibacterial saliva component), and serum albumin—have been inserted into rice. The three transgenic rice strains, unlike golden rice or the various strains of detoxified, fortified cassava, are not intended as food crops, but as factory crops (like vats of E. coli, but much cheaper) to produce the proteins for antidiarrheal medicine in developing countries and potential health-food additives in developed ones. (Lactoferrin in your yogurt, lysozyme in your granola bar?) The biotech that holds the patents, Ventria, wants to grow more than 3,000 acres of the rice in the open in Kansas, “reigniting fears that biomedically potent substances in high-tech plants could escape and turn up in other foods,” wrote the Washington Post in 2007. The company countered:
Because no other rice is grown in Kansas and because rice can grow only in flooded areas, the risk of escape or cross-fertilization with other rice plants is nil there, Deeter said. The company will mill virtually all the seeds on site — using dedicated equipment — to minimize the risk of seeds getting mistakenly released or sold.
On Wednesday, the Agriculture Department published its draft environmental assessment, which concluded that the project posed no undue risks. The public can comment until March 30.
However, the WaPo article undermined all this reassurance by pointing out that
Also on Wednesday, the agency revealed that a type of rice seed in Arkansas had become contaminated with a different variety of genetically engineered rice, LL62, that was never released for marketing. The error was discovered in the course of an ongoing investigation into the widespread contamination of U.S. rice by yet another gene-altered variety, LL601, which has seriously disrupted rice exports.
Those problems, along with the previous discovery of unapproved, gene-altered StarLink corn in food and the accidental release of crops that had been engineered to make a vaccine for pig diarrhea, undermine the USDA’s credibility, critics said.
2012 update here.
In case you wondered how the accidental ingestion of a human protein in your vegetable chow mein could be harmful, a friend of mine responded to my posting this link on Facebook, “I am deathly allergic to mammalian protein, as is everyone infected with Alpha Gal (a tickborne illness).” No, she’s not making that up.
If this kind of story haunts you with visions of anthropogenic plagues (of pig diarrhea!) killing billions—our very own smallpox-infected security blankets coming home to roost—be soothed by looking at it from a higher perspective. We humans are finally rivaling lowly bacteriophage viruses as scramblers of the genetic code. Like our effect on climate—whatever that is—it simply makes us another factor in nature’s ongoing creative destruction, along with asteroids, volcanoes, ice ages, and the like. Why should we feel guilty about being just another wild card in nature’s ceaseless self-revision? Perhaps we should be proud to be so useful. The broad-spectrum suffering the process entails is simply the price living organisms have always paid and will always pay for the misfortune of being born in one of the eras of instability and transformation, or, viewed differently, the noble sacrifice of being raw material. The world that will result will certainly be new and different, and may even contain some astounding prodigies. If only we could be around to see it.