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Plant Molecular Farming

What is plant molecular farming?

Plant molecular farming is the growing of plants in agriculture to produce pharmaceutical or industrial compounds instead of food, feed, or fibre. The possibilities range from the manufacture of medical products, such as pharmaceuticals (drugs) and vaccines, to the production of products like biodegradable plastics and industrial chemicals.

An example: interleukin in tobacco

Tobacco is a non-food plant that can be used in the ways mentioned above. With its high growth rate, tobacco could be used to produce pharmaceuticals and other products.

Tobacco has been experimentally modified to produce antibiotics, a dental treatment, and anti-cancer drugs. Tobacco lines modified to produce pharmaceutical compounds, such as interleukin (a potential treatment for Crohn's disease), have been tested in confined research field trials in Canada.

Other examples

Some other examples of products being experimentally developed through plant molecular farming include:

  • edible vaccines
  • bioplastics made from simple, biodegradable molecules produced in plants
  • medical treatments for animals
  • an enzyme used in the treatment of cystic fibrosis
  • antibodies for diagnostic, preventative, and therapeutic applications (such as preventing tooth decay, reducing kidney transplant rejection, and helping in cancer treatment)
  • enzymes for use in food processing

What is the status of plant molecular farming in Canada?

At this time in Canada, no plants for molecular farming have been approved for commercial field production. Some organizations have been doing research on plants with novel traits (PNTs) for molecular farming in laboratories and greenhouses, as well as for a limited number of approved confined research field trials.

Potential human health and environmental impacts may be greater for plant molecular farming than for other PNTs (such as herbicide-tolerant or insect-resistant plants). Compounds from plants developed for plant molecular farming purposes may have physiological effects on humans and other organisms. While all assessments of PNTs consider the following factors, their potential impacts are of particular importance when assessing PNTs used in plant molecular farming:

  • workers or bystanders accidentally eating or coming into contact with the plants during field production
  • livestock and any wildlife accidentally eating the plants during field production
  • pollen movement to the same or related plant species
  • unintentional introduction of the plant material into food or livestock feed supply chains

How is the CFIA addressing potential impacts of molecular farming?

Confined Research Field Trials

In Canada, plant molecular farming is limited to confined research field trials. Some additional requirements for confined research field trials for plant molecular farming include:

  • larger isolation distances than required for other PNTs
  • additional toxicity and allergenicity data review in some cases
  • a CFIA inspector to witness the disposal and destruction of all residual plant material

Commercial Release

In Canada, there has been no commercial production of PNTs for plant molecular farming. This means that these plants are still in the confined research field trial stage under CFIA oversight and cannot be released into the environment for commercial purposes. The Government of Canada is investigating policy options for commercial plant molecular farming. To this end, the CFIA is developing appropriate rules for commercial release of these plants.

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