This is a nice little article in the times by "collaborative problem solving" director Denise Caruso
A NEW generation of genetically engineered crops that produce drugs and chemicals is fast approaching the market -- bringing with it a new wave of concerns about the safety of the global food and feed supply.
The plants produce medicinal substances like insulin, anticoagulants and blood substitutes. They produce vaccine proteins for diseases like cholera, as well as antibodies against tooth decay and non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. Enzymes and other chemicals from the plants can be used for a range of industrial processes.
As in past debates over genetically modified crops, biotech developers say that the benefits outweigh the risks, and that the risks are manageable. Critics question the benefits, and say the risk of a contaminated and potentially toxic food supply is untenable.
Ellstrand was a good expert to interview -- I included several of his articles in my introgression bibliography -- and his points seem like the most relevant ones:
"I don't think that engineering plants for pharma is a bad idea, with two caveats," Professor Ellstrand said. One, he says he thinks that planting should be done in greenhouses rather than in open fields. "The other issue is food," he said. "Why do we have to do this in food crops? It doesn't matter what you're squeezing the compound out of. It could be a carnation, a corn plant or a castor bean."
That last seems like a good point: why not switchgrass or something? I suppose that the real answer to this question is that there is lots of farm equipment that is designed to deal with the seeds of existing agricultural crops, making the economics of these plants much more appealing than non-food plants. But there probably is some compromise crop that would suit this concern.
Maybe they could find a way to make drugs in plants destined for ethanol -- two birds with one stone.