Saturday, May 9, 2009

GM foods are special medical foods/drugs

I got the above very creative image from here.

'GM foods' is an exciting topic. There are three viewpoints on GM foods- (a) I do not have a clear idea (b) I am against GM foods, and (c) I support GM foods!!

Mention GM (genetically modified) foods and there are intense passions either for this concept or against the idea. Mahesh Bhatt, a famous Hindi filmmaker is making a film on the possible hazards of GM foods. Baba Ramdev of Patanjali Yog Peeth is questioning the need for GM foods. HE prefers alternative farming practices to provide food for the masses.

For a scientist, 'GM foods' are exciting. GM foods appear to have the potential to revolutionize the food market. Drought and pest resistant plants, rice with superior traits - like increased content of beta-carotene (Golden Rice), tomatoes that spoil very slowly ... the magic potential of GM concept is very alluring. However, in the world of unknown there are potential problem areas too.

We do not know what other effects genetic modification of plants can have. It may trigger off unknown allergies. The GM food may compromise immunity and make a person susceptible to viral disease like swine flu (Influenza A H1N1). The introduced gene may mutate to produce some undesirable effects on consumption. A GM tomato is genetically different from a regular tomato. I may take the risk to consume it ... however, when it comes to preparing a dish from the GM tomato for my daughter or son ... well, I will certainly avoid using the GM tomato.

THE COMMERCIAL AND SOCIAL INTEREST ON GM FOODS IS THAT THEY HAVE THE POTENTIAL TO SOLVE THE WORLD'S PROBLEM OF HUNGER AND MALNUTRITION. Special GM foods can potentially deliver vaccines (edible fruits as vaccines - containing attenuated or inactivated antigens or antigenic genetic material).

GM foods are mainly plant derived: soyabean, corn, etc. However, pigs are experimentally being used to produce omega (3) fatty acids.

Why are marketers interested in GM foods?

Marketers are there for increasing consumption, market share, sales, and profits - making more money. They are also there to ensure customer delight - ie., the customers should not feel conned or obliged or coerced in to parting with his cash, he should consume the marketed product or service, and very delightedly part with his or her cash! That is the basic intension of every marketer.

Seed companies love GM foods. If the farmer wants to grow the GM plants, he has to purchase seeds from the marketer, and nobody else. So the seed marketer can control the market. GM seeds help the seed marketer make more money and ensure a customer base. It is like subscribing to a mobile phone service from Reliance or Tata Indicom, you cannot change the service provider unless you change the handphone; in the case of Airtel or BSNL, you can change the service provider, without changing your favorite mobile handphone - just change the SIM card.


So how to market GM foods? After all, there could be potential benefits. Prejudice should not prevent the marketers' noble intent to provide better and better products and services for the larger good of society (and make more money). So a free and fair marketing solution for the GM foods concept is needed.


Pharma marketing is based on PRECLINICAL AND CLINICAL TRIALS, documentation, postmarketing surveillance studies (Phase 4), ADR (adverse drug reaction) surveillance (ie., pharmacovigilance), creating a detailed product monograph, MARKETING THE DRUG THROUGH LEARNED OPINION BUILDERS (DOCTORS/PHARMACISTS), being in regular touch with the doctors and pharmacists, CMEs (continuing medical education programs), seminars, updates etc. Hence, we observe pharma marketing is very technical, regulated, monitored, data heavy, communication savvy, and RESPONSIBLE.

This marketing plan is a good approach for GM FOODS too.

Firstly, it should take atleast 20 years of intensive preclinical and clinical study of the GM food candidate to enter in to the market. The marketing process for GM foods should be regulated and on the pharma marketing model and not on consumer marketing model. GM foods are too sensitive for mass marketing.


Subsequently, for GM foods, a good postmarketing surveillance system should be in place. Doctors and pharmacists should be the certified opinion builders for GM foods. This means GM food marketers should call on doctors and pharmacists regularly as medical representatives do, provide updates and other promo inputs. Consumers should be encouraged to take the advice of doctors before making a GM food purchase. GM foods should be sampled to doctors, and they should try them on patients. Data feedback should be collected
regularly from doctors. In essence, GM foods should be marketed like pharmaceuticals. There are important reasons for this - too much of Vitamin A can cause hypervitaminosis (it could cause birth defects), increased intake of beta carotene by smokers can possibly make the person susceptible to cancer; there are many such delicate matters. Allergies, viral outbreaks etc may be fostered by GM foods. So it requires a qualified doctor to advice consumption of GM foods.


It is important to generate confidence. If people fearlessly take pharmaceuticals for specific conditions it is because the drug is backed by a prescription and years of clinical and postmarketing study. GM food marketers need to generate such a body of data to win confidence of potential consumers. Moreover, when edible vaccine fruits are being planned - then these GM foods surely need to be marketed typically like pharmaceuticals.

NOW THE IMPORTANT QUESTION - should GM foods be sold only on the prescription of a doctor?

Well, it depends on the GM food. If it is an edible vaccine fruit, certainly yes. If it is a GM food with heavy concentration of vitamins and minerals, then again yes. GM FOODS SHOULD BE OF TWO TYPES - PRESCRIPTION ONLY, AND OVER-THE-COUNTER CUM PRESCRIPTION. The first-type are sold against prescriptions only. The second type should necessarily be promoted to doctors and pharmacists, but can be purchased by consumers without prescriptions.


The 'serious' GM foods like edible vaccine fruits should be sold only at pharmacies; other GM foods may be sold at nonpharmacies ONLY AFTER 5 YEARS OF EXCLUSIVE MARKETING AT PHARMACIES.

THE MAIN ADVANTAGE OF THIS MARKETING APPROACH IS ASSURING CONSUMERS OF SAFETY, PURITY, AND EFFICACY which is what pharmaceutical marketers do by marketing pharma products through doctors and pharmacies.

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