Bootheel Farmers Gain Allies in Rice War
By Bill Lambrecht
Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau
March 24, 2005
WASHINGTON - The food industry and environmentalists joined Missouri rice growers this week in their fight to prevent a California company from sowing genetically modified rice in the Missouri Bootheel.
Unlike most genetically modified crops, this rice wouldn't be destined for dinner tables but for pharmaceutical companies, which would make drugs from proteins engineered into the grain. Farmers worry that the drug-bound rice would commingle with their edible crops - worth some $100 million each year - and make them difficult to sell.
"Those people came into Missouri through the back door and cut a deal before we even knew anything was going on," said Sonny Matin, a rice farmer in Bernie, Mo. "This is a political thing with a lot of money involved."
Matin was referring to Ventria Biosciences, the company that wants to use Missouri fields for "biopharming," and which has garnered the support of the farmers' own Missouri Farm Bureau, along with Missouri Sens. Christopher "Kit" Bond and Jim Talent, both Republicans, and U.S. Rep. Jo Ann Emerson, R-Cape Girardeau.
"We're going to see unbelievable things happen in the next five, 10 or 20 years in pharmaceutical crops," said Missouri Farm Bureau President Charles Kruse, who sent a letter to the Agriculture Department supporting Ventria. "There are going to be states that are winners, and states that aren't players in this."
The company's application has triggered a spirited debate among farmers, scientists, health professionals and environmental advocates from around the country. An Agriculture Department public comment period on Ventria's plan closes today.
A decision looms on whether Ventria will be permitted to plant an initial 200 acres of its engineered rice this spring in Scott County - and what safeguards could be imposed to prevent potentially costly contamination of Missouri's rice crop.
Ventria, based in Sacramento, Calif., has filed two applications aimed at expanding the realm of commercial biotechnology by engineering rice seeds to synthetically produce two human proteins, lactoferrin and lysozyme, for use in drugs.
Both proteins occur in breast milk, tears, saliva and other bodily fluids. They aid in the fight against bacteria, viruses, funguses and other invaders.
The Agriculture Department's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service has looked favorably on Ventria's pharmaceutical food crops in the past. Government regulators first approved Ventria's applications in 1997 for a rice crop in California.
In a recent report, the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service concluded that Ventria's proposal for Missouri "should not have a significant impact, either individually or cumulatively, on the quality of the human environment."
The Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service's decision will help determine whether plant-made pharmaceuticals, the so-called second wave of biotech products, can surmount a shaky beginning. Safeguards attached to the permit would tell how far the government is willing to go to answer criticisms about lax rules governing biotechnology.
Problems in controlling the fate of gene-altered seeds were underscored this week when Swiss-based Syngenta, a biotech leader, admitted that it mistakenly sold U.S. farmers modified corn seed not approved by the U.S. government. No dangers to health were cited, but the government kept the massive glitch under wraps for three months after learning about Syngenta's problem.
No one is watching the Ventria application more closely than Missouri rice farmers. Thanks to ideal soil, ample water and government subsidies, Missouri's long-grain rice industry has expanded swiftly since the 1980s and now ranks sixth among states, according to the industry.
But Bootheel rice growers worry about contamination from pharmaceutical rice and losing customers in export markets who want nothing to do with any genetic modification, let alone drug-making plants.
Farmers scoffed at claims that the pharmaceutical rice can be contained on its growing plot. Ventria is promising quarter-mile buffers to help prevent its rice from cross-pollinating with conventional varieties.
Alan Southern, who grows 600 acres of rice with his father, Wayne, near Steele, Mo., said he doesn't believe Ventria understands farming in Missouri or the potential of birds carrying away the seed.
"They've got a good grasp on the technology. But what they don't have a good grasp on is dirt clod-kicking, grass-roots farming in southern Missouri. Those blackbirds will be all over that rice, carrying it and tracking it away - and ducks, too, with those big, webbed feet," he said.
Food companies opposed
The opposition by Missouri growers gained muscle when Arkansas-based Riceland Foods, the world's largest miller and marketer of rice, said this week that it would ask the Agriculture Department to turn down Ventria.
The Food Products Association, a Washington-based trade association that represents the nation's major food companies, also was preparing to submit comments opposing Ventria.
The American food industry, fearing contamination of products, has continually pressed the government for stricter regulation of the fledgling pharmaceutical food crops industry. Two years ago, after pharmaceutical seed fouled corn and soybeans in Iowa and Nebraska, the Agriculture Department imposed new rules that included more inspections, dedicated equipment and buffer zones.
But neither the Food Products Association nor the Grocery Manufacturers of America - each of which represent companies with $500 billion in annual sales - believes the government has gone far enough.
"If they're going to use food crops, then just put them in greenhouses and avoid any problems," said Jeffrey Barach, the Food Products Association's vice president of special programs.
Bill Freese, a Washington-based analyst for Friends of the Earth, a global advocacy group, argued that the Food and Drug Administration or other federal agencies should be reviewing pharmaceutical food crops for human health impacts.
Last year, Ventria announced plans to relocate to Missouri at an unspecified time and forged an alliance with Northwest Missouri State University in Maryville after receiving offers of state subsidies to help finance its research.
Ventria President Scott Deeter said the company wanted to eventually grow more than 20,000 acres of plant-made pharmaceuticals in Missouri. He said the fears of Missouri rice growers were misplaced, given his company's plan to use what he referred to as an entirely closed system of production with a plant that pollinates itself.
Deeter said he was confident that Missouri political leaders will hold firm in their support, despite pressure from skeptics.
"Without political leadership, a small minority of activists and noninterested folks can derail something like this. Luckily, as far as we can tell, that leadership is in place," he said.
In his statement, Bond urged the federal government to "permit the science-based process, not a political process, to yield a decision on safety and then honor that decision."
Talent said he had concerns about how rice farmers would be affected, but referred to the technology as "very innovative and exciting."
Emerson, in whose district the pharmaceutical rice would grow, said that the Agriculture Department "has the expertise to make the tough calls on issues like this one."
Riceland Stands Against Genetically Modified Rice in Southeast Missouri
March 29, 2005
LITTLE ROCK, AR - Stuttgart-based Riceland Foods wants federal regulators to deny a request by a competitor for a permit to grow genetically modified rice in southeastern Missouri.
Riceland, the world's largest rice miller and marketer, has asked the U.S. Department of Agriculture to deny Ventria Bioscience's request to grow about 200 acres of the rice in Cape Girardeau, Scott and Mississippi counties in Missouri.
The Missouri Farm Bureau supports Ventria, which recently announced it was moving from Sacramento, California to Northwest Missouri State University in Maryville.
Riceland says there is no level of acceptance among consumers, in the U.S. or abroad, for genetically modified rice.
Ventria Bioscience says it wants to grow about 200 acres of rice engineered with human genes to produce human proteins that could be used to make pharmaceuticals for gastrointestinal health. The company wants to plant in March or April.