Riding the tide of biopharming in Africa: Considerations for risk assessment

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South African Journal of Science

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University of Cape Town

In the past few years, plant biotechnology has gone beyond traditional agricultural production of food, feed and fibre, and moved to address more complex contemporary health, social and industrial challenges. The newera involves production of novel pharmaceutical products, speciality and fine chemicals, phytoremediation and production of renewable energy resources to replace nonrenewable fossil fuels. Plants have been shown to provide a genuine and low-cost alternative production system for high-value products. Currently, the principal plant-made products include antibodies, feed additives, vaccine antigens and hormones for human and animal health, and industrial proteins. Despite the unique advantages of scalability, cost and product safety, issues of politics, environmental impact, regulation and socioeconomics still limit the adoption of biopharmaceuticals, especially in the developing world. Plant-based production systems have further complicated biosafety, gene flow and environmental impact assessments with generally genetically modified plants, topics that are already partially understood. This article provides a background to biopharming, highlighting basic considerations for risk assessment and regulation in developing countries, with an emphasis on plant-based vaccine production in South Africa.