AgWatch


Why Are Consumers Concerned About GMOs In Food, But Not Medicine

SARA WYANT

WASHINGTON, D.C.
   As millions of Americans ga-ther for family meals over the holidays, the subject of food will undoubtedly come up – whether there’s too much, too little; cooked with unusual ingredients, or featuring more traditional standbys, like green bean casserole.
   And somewhere in that mix will likely be the subject of how much the food cost and how the food was actually produced, whether it was from organic, conventional, local, cage-free or a host of other production types, including seeds that were genetically modified – more commonly known as GMOs.
   Over the last two decades, American farmers have been growing a wide variety of foods from GMO seeds, including corn (field and sweet), soybeans, cotton, canola, alfalfa, sugar beets, papaya, and squash.
   There has never been a concern over the safety of these products, yet activist groups continue to call for labeling initiatives that would somehow suggest that GMO foods or ingredients are somehow less safe than other foods. But have you ever seen calls for labeling at the drug store instead of a grocery store? 
   GMOs have been used for at least a decade longer in medicines and pharmaceutical drugs than they have in food, with apparently wide acceptance because of their positive health benefits.
   In agriculture, GMO, or transgenic crops, are made when a gene is artificially inserted into a host plant. The process is also known as recombinant DNA technology. Most GMO crops are made to resist insects or herbicides, with the exception of Golden Rice, which is bioengineered to make beta-carotene as it grows.
   Genetically modified, or biotech, medicines are developed using living cells or organisms, as opposed to chemical synthesis.
   “There is widespread support of transgenic healthcare therapies but far less so for genetic engineering in agriculture,” said Dr. Ben Locwin, a biopharmaceutical expert and adviser for the American Association for Pharmaceutical Scientists. That’s despite the fact that, “There is little difference in the technologies or principles between GM foods and GM drugs.”
   The first human healthcare product developed from recombinant DNA technology to reach the market was an insulin product named Humulin, approved by FDA in 1982 and made through GM bacteria.
   Critics of GM insulin are easy to find in the natural food movement, including EcoGlobe, GMO-Free USA and Natural News. Supporters of the drug note that billions of doses of GM insulin have been taken over the decades, clearly showing its safety profile and life-sustaining effects.
   Meanwhile, the public does not appear to be as familiar or concerned about the technology in medicine as it is with the arguments made by activist groups against GMO food.
   Other GM pharmaceutical products include recombinant hepatitis B vaccine produced by genetically modified baker’s yeast and drugs produced in genetically modified mammalian cells that can treat heart attack and stroke patients.
   According to the Biotechnology Industry Association, or BIO, by the year 2000, there were over 100 genetically engineered drugs on the market, and estimates show more than double that amount on the market today. In 2013, the top three best selling drugs were biologics – Humira and Remicade, which are used to treat rheumatoid arthritis and Crohn’s disease, and Rituxin, which is prescribed for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
   Val Giddings, senior fellow at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation and former vice president for food and agriculture at BIO, said most opponents of GMO products in food from developed nations do not have experience with hunger, but almost everyone has experienced illness.
   “People are less willing to tolerate nonsense that would impede their access to modern medicine,” Giddings said. “Things that guide our instinctual responses to food issues are less pragmatic and more emotional.”
   He also said groups that question the safety of consuming foods developed through genetic engineering “have chosen to embark on fear-based campaigns.” 
   “They’re trying to expand their market share in the food business…they’re not trying to sell medicines, they’re trying to sell food,” he said.
   When it comes to treatments for threatening or “scary” diseases like Ebola, Locwin notes that most consumers approve of speeding up the technological process that could treat or prevent such a disease.
   “…A majority of the public favors transgenic technology to be used for therapies such as ZMapp to stem the Ebola crisis, and it seems that this includes a portion of overlap from those who otherwise reject the idea of GM foods,” he stated in a column for the Genetic Literacy Project.
   ZMapp, an experimental drug to treat Ebola, has reportedly been administered to seven patients, four of whom have recovered. Developed by Mapp Biopharmaceutical Inc. in San Diego and Kentucky BioProcessing, the drug contains three monoclonal antibodies and is grown in tobacco leaves.
   Kentucky BioProcessing specializes in using plants to make proteins that are then used as pharmaceutical products. “Plant-based protein production is a faster, more efficient and less expensive way to deliver pharmaceutical protein products than traditional methods requiring complex bioreactors,” according to the company.
   Specifically, the rapid growth of the tobacco plant allows the company to quickly produce proteins. For ZMapp, a genetically engineered virus is injected into a tobacco plant and the plant produces antibodies. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is increasing funding for the production of the drug.
   However, the Organic Consumers Association (OCA) is not convinced that this technology is needed. It warns that this acceleration could be the result of drug company monopolies working with the government to drive attention away from natural remedies that are less expensive and can be self-administered.
   So if you have been in contact with someone who has Ebola, would you like to try a product produced through genetic engineering or try the self-administered natural remedy?    Maybe that’s another question for your holiday dinner conversation.
   Agri-Pulse Associated Editor Sarah Gonzalez contributed to this column. ∆
   SARA WYANT: Publisher of Agri-Pulse, a weekly e-newsletter covering farm and rural policy. To contact her, go to: http://www.agri-pulse.com/
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