The first ever plant/human hybrid is to be approved for commercial scale cultivation. According to reports, the US authorities have given preliminary approval for the crop to be grown on a 3,000 acre plot in Kansas.
The plant in question is rice, but it has been spliced with human DNA that will make it grow a protein found in both human breast milk and saliva. Ventria Bioscience, the California-based firm behind the crop, says the protein can be used to treat children with diarrhoea.
The decision by the US Department of Agriculture has provoked an outcry from anti-GM campaigners because of concerns over contamination of the food chain, possible allergic reactions to the proteins, and a lack of knowledge on the impact such large scale cultivation might have.
Others have registered ethical objections, a disinclination towards meddling with the building blocks of all life. But these are much harder to quantify, and legally impossible to use as a basis for restricting the import of the crop to the UK and Europe, once it has passed the required safety tests.
Friends of the Earth said the development was very worrying. Campaigner Claire Oxborrow said genetically modified rice had already contaminated the food chain, and called on the government to take a stand against the drug companies.
"The government must urge the US to ban the production of drugs in food crops," she said. "It must also introduce tough measures to prevent illegal GM crops contaminating our food and ensure that biotech companies are liable for any damage their products cause."
Ventrica argues that the risk is small: Kansas has no commercial rice farms, making contamination unlikely. In addition, it says it will use dedicated storage and processing facilities to handle the crop.
The firm also says the pay off is worth what risk there might be. It says its own research showed that children suffering from dehydration caused by diarrhoea recovered more quickly when given electrolytes mixed with the proteins it plans to grow in the rice. ®