Biopharming potential must be closely viewed
The troubles being faced by a small Mainland biosciences company that produces medicine from rice should be instructional for companies involved in similar biopharming enterprises in Hawai'i.
While the idea of genetically modifying common plants to produce life-saving drugs holds great potential, this work must be conducted with great care and scrutiny. There are at least four such operations under way in Hawai'i, and more are planned.
It is important to recognize that biopharming, in which plants are modified to produce medicine for human use, is quite different from genetic engineering aimed at producing better crops. If a papaya is engineered, for instance, to be resistant to a harmful virus, it is still a papaya.
What the Mainland firm is doing is adding a human gene to rice, which then is ground into a powder that has great potential for lessening the impact of diarrhea attacks, a common killer in less-developed countries.
Big rice growers fear that this modified product might somehow find its way into their crops, thus damaging their acceptance on the market.
These "drift" issues can, and must, be controlled as biopharming continues. For instance, a company intending to grow genetically altered algae for medicinal use on the Big Island has been forced to wait until an environmental assessment of the project is completed.
The state Board of Agriculture initially approved the project but was later ordered by the Circuit Court to conduct an environmental assessment process before any permit is issued.
This makes sense. It's also important to see the economic and human potential in biopharming, but it must not be allowed to proceed without quality controls and strict environmental oversight.