GM crops specially engineered to produce drugs are to be grown commercially for the first time, The Independent on Sunday can reveal.
An American biotech company plans to start growing medicines to treat diarrhoea in modified rice this spring. Its proposals were examined last week by regulatory authorities in California, but they have no power to stop the planting.
The rice will usher in a second generation of GM crops, which are bound to polarise opinion even more than those that have already caused controversy around the world. Unlike current crops they could offer real benefits to millions of people - but they also pose far greater health risks.
Top officials at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs believe that the danger is so great that the new crops should never be grown in Britain. But Downing Street has cautiously endorsed them.
The possibilities for growing drugs in plants - dubbed "pharming" - have been researched for years, with scientists developing a wide range of vaccines and other medicines in several common foods in the laboratory. But now Ventria Bioscience, based in Sacramento, is to break new ground by planting 130 acres with two new varieties of GM rice that will produce lactoferrin and lysozyme, infection-fighting chemicals that it will market for use in oral rehydration products to treat severe diarrhoea.
It says that this could generate enough lactoferrin to treat at least 650,000 sick children, and sufficient lysozyme for 6.5 million patients. It hopes to expand production to 1,000 acres within a few years.
The company will not disclose the site that it has earmarked for the new crops because it is worried that protesters will destroy them. But its plans have already caused alarm in California's rice-growing country. Organic farmers, in particular, fear that the GM rice will contaminate their crops; the company says that there is "no risk".
On Thursday the arguments were thrashed out before a meeting of the California Rice Commission, which is drawing up a protocol of conditions under which the rice can be grown. But Tim Johnson, the commission's president, told The Independent on Sunday that neither it nor the state's agriculture secretary, to whom it reports, has the power to stop the rice being cultivated.
He said that the commission was instead concentrating on working out precautions - such as the distance the GM rice must be from conventional crops - to try to minimise risks.
The chemicals in the rice are relatively mild - they are found in mother's milk - but they are likely to pave the way for a wide range of stronger ones. Scientists, for example, have developed vaccines to treat diseases ranging from measles to hepatitis B - and antibodies to treat cancer and dental caries, provide contraceptives and prevent genital herpes - in potatoes, maize, wheat, rice, alfalfa, carrots and tomatoes.
The company says that its plants "will become 'factories' that manufacture therapeutic proteins to combat life-threatening illnesses". It adds that "plants improved through the use of biotechnology" can produce them "for innovative treatments for diseases such as cancer, HIV, heart disease, diabetes, Alzheimer's disease, kidney disease, Crohn's disease, cystic fibrosis and many others".