SEPTEMBER 11, 2000
Saving the world with a banana?
© 2000

I just read one of those stories that offers both great hope and sparks great fear. Maybe you can help by considering the advantages/disadvantages of this kind of new developing technology and science.

Science has unlocked another door that potentially could have incredible potential world health benefits. However, in so doing there is also the palpable potential for abuse. Now I know this is one of those issues where the "tool" is not culpable for the inappropriate or evil application of the tool. However, for those of us who are just cynical enough to believe that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely, ponder this:

London is reporting news of a vaccine that could wipe out the Hepatitis B virus. "Tomatoes and bananas genetically modified to contain Hepatitis B vaccine could rid the world of the virus, a leading American scientist said." Cornell University Prof. Charles Arntzen is the guy who developed this technology. "The virus, which causes high fever and attacks the liver, is a precursor of liver cancer, the biggest single cause of cancer deaths. This new development will save hundreds of thousands of lives a year." Wow! That's a good thing right? A cheap, effective means of eliminating a significant health threat.

According to Arntzen, this breakthrough "in producing a cheap, stable vaccine by genetically modifying plants became biology's holy grail in the 1990s, and is seen by the U.S. biotech industry as its vindication and public relations savior." If, and yes Virginia, it is a big whomping "if," someone somewhere has the capacity to bridle smoke and control it. These plant vaccines will turn into a billion-dollar business and potentially a trillion-dollar industry.

The successful experiments show that the vaccine not only works, but it will cost less than one penny a dose to make. The potential for profits is staggering.

They have found that a single gene transferred into a tomato or banana plant is reproduced as a protein thousands of times inside the fruit. When eaten it passes into the intestine and then into the blood stream producing antibodies against Hepatitis B -- working the same way as a traditionally injected but much more expensive vaccine. That is way cool. So why does the hair on the back of my neck itch?

It is a good thing that this breakthrough could herald the extinction of Hepatitis B. However, once the methodology of man's further modifying nature becomes the standard rather than the exception, someone in authority -- some real or would-be "controller" -- could introduce other less beneficial elements into the world food source. Remember some of these Orwellian New World Order wannabe kings have as a stated objective the reduction of world population by some 50 percent.

It is exciting that "a single dried banana chip or tomato paste sandwiched in a wafer contains enough protein to act as a vaccine dose." But what if by accident or intent Hepatitis B isn't the only target for these new super augmented fruits and vegetables?

What if specifically targeted populations were chosen for attrition and a food source attacked the immune system rather than strengthened it?

Paranoia or reasonable skepticism? I'm not sure.

I hate government bureaucracies. I believe strongly that less government is better government. I believe that the closer we are to our political leaders, the safer we are. I consider global government anathema to the central principles of liberty and freedom. However, I am torn by the growing necessity for something to protect us from ourselves.

Currently we are only hearing how the glass is half full. In London, Arntzen told fellow scientists, his work is "the most exciting area of biological science and that 40 new vaccines being worked on worldwide opened the possibility of eradicating some diseases altogether." So why do I feel uncomfortable?

Arntzen's institute was founded by a big shot Salvation Army officer in the 1920s to expand human understanding of plants and to enhance their benefits to humankind. Altruism was the reason that its scientists had tried to produce cheap vaccines from plants that would benefit millions of people in the developing world who could not afford western medicine. Vaccinations have just about eliminated smallpox and polio and now they think they can do that with Hepatitis B as well. This is remarkable and wonderful news.

I guess what bothers me is not so much the science or the technology but the potential for how some evil, venial bastard -- some Machiavellian counterpoint to the altruistic intentions of these scientists -- could and would find a means of using this technology to further goals and objectives significantly different from the good purpose for which it has been developed.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration are holding the vaccine back, not because it doesn't work, but because, thus far, they don't have a mechanism for licensing plant vaccines. The delay is a business and political obstacle not a scientific one.

I applaud Prof. Arntzen for the remarkable ground breaking work he has introduced. However, now that he has let the genie out of the bottle I am more than a tad nervous about how we either control it or squeeze it back in.