A biotechnology executive said genetically modified organisms will not only play a role in crop improvement and agricultural markets, but are now converging with the pharmaceutical industry.

John Howard of Prodigene, said “Plants can contain medicine.

Plant-based oral vaccines will also increase convenience for the consumer.”

Howard was one of several speakers at the recently held International Conference on Agricultural Science and Technology, held at the Hyatt Regency in downtown Houston. Some 400 scientists, policymakers and industry leaders from 35 countries attended the event, which seeks to bring together experts working on similar problems throughout the world in a quest for common solutions.

Plant-based medicines can save money, Howard said, vs. yeast-based proteins. But for GMOs to be successful, the public has to overcome the fear of them and industry has to “build public confidence.”

Howard said a lot of work has been done in the crop improvement sector, but the newest sector is drug discovery. “What's happening is these two are converging,” he said.

“Today, the $50 billion industry is centered in biotechnology and centered in proteins.” Howard said there are technical, regulatory and public challenges. He asked, “Can plants make functionally equivalent proteins?”

According to Howard, the answer is yes. Prodigene has worked with producing Avidin, a protein taken from transgenic maize. He said research has shown that the protein can be stored for many years in grain.

Plants not only can contain medicine, Howard said, but also vaccines. He said the concept could be used in livestock feeds. Overall, plant-based oral vaccines “increase convenience,” he said.

Meanwhile, Mary Ditto, with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, gave an overview of testing GMO products in her presentation titled, “FDA's Approach to Safety for Human Consumption.” The FDA regulates the introduction of GMO organisms and Ditto said if a developer wants to test a field product, they must go to the U.S. Department of Agriculture to apply for a permit.

Any product that is introduced as a plant that is resistant to pests has to be cleared through the EPA. She said the FDA also oversees proper labeling of foods.

Traits in newly-bio-engineered papaya, squash, canola and corn varieties are herbicide tolerance, altered ripening and pest resistance, Ditto said.