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Possibility of pharmaceutical rice in California draws mixed reactions from farmers

(Friday, April 9, 2004 -- CropChoice news) -- San Francisco Chronicle, 04/08/04: Delevan, Colusa County -- Joe Carrancho isn't particularly fond of environmentalists or their rules that he feels have made it harder for him to be a rice farmer over the past 40 years. He's a duck-hunting, self-made immigrant with a photo of President Bush by his desk, and he wants to be left alone to farm.

But with a Sacramento biotechnology company proposing to plant the nation's first commercial crop that's genetically engineered to produce a medicine, Carrancho and others like him in the Davis-to-Chico rice belt are standing with the environmentalists.

The 61-year-old with the catcher's-mitt hands worries that if California becomes the latest battleground in the nation's war over genetically modified organisms, the only loser will be the state's $500 million rice market.

To farmers who live at the mercy of nature and the world markets, the problem with genetically engineered rice has less to do with its science and more with its public perception. And if a batch of conventional rice is found to contain the genetically engineered variety by mistake, some foreign markets could shun California rice.

Carrancho said he and environmentalists "may be apart on some issues, but on this one we're together."

California exports 40 percent of its rice to Japan, which has among the world's strictest policies regarding genetically engineered food. And even though the rice grown by the Sacramento company, Ventria Bioscience, would be required to be planted far from California's rice belt, milled in separate facilities and trucked in separate vehicles, Carrancho doesn't want to take the risk that that all those regulations will be lost in translation.

"If the Japanese have the perception -- underline perception -- that our rice has (genetically modified organisms) in it, then we're done," said Carrancho, a past president of the Rice Producers of California. "You can put a bullet in our head."

Ventria Bioscience wants to grow a rice plant with a seed that contains human proteins usually found in breast milk and tears; the company has been testing the product in small plots for several years. The proteins developed in the seed of a rice plant could be used to create a medicine used to combat anemia and diarrhea, among the world's leading causes of death for children under 5.

Because plants can replicate the proteins 30 times cheaper than traditional laboratory methods, Ventria officials contend that genetically engineered rice could go a long way toward creating affordable medicines to combat the worldwide health problem.

Last week, a California Rice Commission advisory panel narrowly approved a protocol for growing what's been dubbed "pharm rice" in 10 Southern California counties from San Luis Obispo to San Diego. California's secretary of agriculture has until May 1 to approve an emergency request by Ventria Bioscience to plant the rice in time for this year.

A state Agricultural Department spokesman said the agency could make a decision within days, but the company still must receive federal approval before proceeding. While farmers in Northern California's rice belt will begin planting in the next few weeks, seeding can begin as late as this summer in the warmer southern regions.

But passions around genetically engineered rice are boiling. Sitting in the office near his farm this week, Carrancho read aloud parts of the protocol that were developed over the past year. He shook his head.

"This is probably the most stringent protocol I've ever seen," he conceded. "And it's not enough."

The worst-case scenario, for Carrancho and the rest of the state's 2,200 rice farmers, is that Japan goes elsewhere for its rice imports.

On Wednesday, Tsutomu Matsumoto, Japan's consul in the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries, and Forestry, told The Chronicle in a written statement: "Concerning California's (genetically engineered) rice production issue, Japanese consumers have a serious concern in regards to food safety. For this reason, Japanese rice retailers' association and consumer groups plan to submit a public comment to the California Department of Food and Agriculture" within a few days.

Rice farmers such as Greg Massa, a Colusa County grower who has a master's degree in biology, doesn't believe there's a legitimate scientific reason for the rush to approve the genetically engineered crop. He's not opposed to such rice just because of the public perception; he's worried about the science of growing pharmaceutical products in farm crops.

"Why not take more time to examine this?" Massa said, "because there is absolutely no benefit to anyone to rush into this."

But some California farmers don't have a big problem with genetically engineered rice. Charley Matthews, a third-generation rice farmer around Yuba City, initially was wary of the proposal when he reviewed it as a member of the Rice Commission's advisory panel.

"What changed my mind was that it would be grown hundreds of miles away," Matthews said. If the proposal is approved, he said, "you will get a market reaction. Now, we just have to explain it to all of our customers."

And to a lot of farmers, too. Ronald Lee, president of the Rice Producers of California, wants to hold town meetings so more farmers can learn about the issue, especially since two other companies are readying proposals to bring genetically engineered rice to California, perhaps by next year.

"There's a learning curve here for producers," said Lee, who farms in Colusa County. "Some have some knowledge. Some have very little. We're entering new territory here."

Much of the scientific questions differ over how easily the genetically engineered seed could be spread -- and possibly contaminate non-genetically engineered rice. Rice is a self-pollinating plant, so its seed is less likely to be spread as widely as say, corn.

Ventria officials said such "outcrossing" wouldn't happen over more than 30 feet. Opponents point to studies that say contamination from other genetically engineered crops is already widespread.

The dispute is causing some to wonder why Ventria is asking for an emergency status on its proposal. The company did not respond to requests for an interview.

"What is the emergency that this has to be done immediately?" asked Jane Rissler, a senior staff scientist and deputy director of the Food and Environment Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists in Washington, D.C.

She wants to see several "third-party" scientists examine the proposal instead of those on the Rice Commission advisory board. "This is too important, too precedent-setting, to rush through without more public input," she said.

Ventria Bioscience officials have said previously that the months that the Rice Commission panel, composed of farmers, academics and industry representatives, spent in developing the protocol provided ample public input.

"There has been an exhaustive process to keep the two kinds of rice separate," said Ann Schmidt, a spokeswoman for the California Rice Commission.