It appears that it is now possible to synthetically create artemisinin, used primarily (solely?) as a treatment against malaria. This is the stuff of first-pumping and cheering, especially if the synthetic version turns out to be significantly easy and cheaper to obtain than the natural version. This is a real win for global health.
Not so fast, says Jim Thomas in the Guardian, a newspaper which somehow manages to make us feel guilty about any good development-related news by identifying some poor sod who has lost out (a wonderful example is their silly, excessive worrying over Western consumption of quinoa). According to Thomas, the new synthetic version of the drug will put farmers of sweet wormwood (the plant from which artemisinin is usually derived) out of business:
Now it turns out that artemesia farmers are dismissed as entirely expendable. The rejoinder of “let them plant potatoes” seems dismissive of farmer knowledge: farmers understand markets well and those now growing artemisia annua do so because it helps them bring in income. As for the argument that synbio is necessary to eradicate malaria, the botanical approach was already producing more than enough artemisinin to address malaria.
“There is simply no rationale to have a synthetic product on the market when farmers could produce enough raw material to produce the tablets from pulverised high quality plants,” said Professor Hans Herren, World Food Prize winner, who has worked extensively with east African artemesia farmers.
Now, it remains to be seen how much cheaper the synthetic version will be, but let’s assume that it’s significantly cheaper than the natural one (although it turns out the price of the latter is insanely volatile). How much hand-wringing should we actually do if welfare gains for fighting malaria outweigh the welfare losses of having farmers switch to another type of crop?
If you still feel outraged by all this, would you feel differently if we switched out the words “sweet wormwood” with “biofuel crops”? Would you feel differently if someone had discovered a working vaccine for malaria?