With biopharming now undergoing open-field trials, it's reasonable to ask: If food becomes contaminated with biopharmed crops, could these substances harm human health?
It depends, of course, on the type of chemical and the quantity. However, there is much to be concerned about. People are prescribed drugs by their doctors, and should only be ingesting them when necessary and appropriate to their medical condition. If food crops were to become contaminated with biopharm crops, our food could end up dosing us with drugs that we don't want, that we don't need, and that could be inimical to our well-being.
Further, plants process proteins differently than animals or humans. Thus, some experts are concerned that a plant-produced "human" protein could be perceived as foreign by the body and elicit an allergic reaction, including life-threatening anaphylactic shock. For example, corn-grown industrial enzymes such as trypsin and antitrypsin are known allergens. Yet trypsin corn has been grown on hundreds of acres throughout the Corn Belt.
Genetic engineers like working with plants they know a lot about, which has led them primarily to food crops for biopharming. Dr. Jane Rissler of the Union of Concerned Scientists points out the problem with this:
"If you were to try to figure out the worst crop to use for biopharm products, it would probably be corn because it readily pollinates—that is, the pollen travels long distances. So the pollen containing the genes for the drug might float into fields where corn is being grown for food. Some of the seed that is harvested may escape and fall to the ground, grow the following year, and be harvested along with other food crops.... These products will be [visually] indistinguishable."
Biopharming proponents point out that "detasseling" of biopharmed corn is one of the methods by which the technique could be rendered safe. Rissler counters:
"The problem is, USDA does not apply these strict requirements to industrial producing crops. It is not clear that these restrictions do in fact keep these [pharm] genes out of the food supply. It is not clear that these requirements actually work. These [latest] requirements have never been subject to public comment; have not, as far as we know, been subject to scientific review."