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California pharm rice stories

(Thursday, April 8, 2004 -- CropChoice news) -- Following are three stories regarding the possible planting of pharmaceutical rice in California.

  • Biotech company wants to grow rice for medicinal supplements

    By Paul Elias
    April 6, 2004

    SAN FRANCISCO -- A small company's bid to greatly expand its genetically engineered rice operation has brought the international debate over biotechnology home to California farmers, who largely have avoided the issue directly in recent years.

    Ventria Bioscience of Sacramento is pushing hard to gain government approvals to expand its planting of rice engineered with human DNA to produce medicine in time for this year's growing season, which is getting underway in a matter of weeks.

    Within two years, Ventria hopes to have the first marketing approval to grow rice that produces over-the-counter treatments for iron deficiencies, diarrhea and other ailments.

    The company's timeline could be hampered if it doesn't receive the necessary state and federal approvals to expand its operations in the next few weeks. Even the company conceded U.S. Department of Agriculture approval in time is a long shot. California regulators also need to approve the plan.

    Nonetheless, Ventria's bid to plant more than 100 acres of the genetically modified rice this year and thousands more in coming years has touched off widespread disagreement over biotechnology in the normally insular California rice industry.

    Though some California growers already tend to federally approved fields of genetically engineered cotton and, to a far lesser extent, modified corn and soy, the state's farmers have in recent years largely avoided the controversy surrounding biotechnology's use in the Midwest.

    Voters in rural Mendocino County last month did vote to ban biotechnology from its borders. But the ballot measure had little practical effect, because no biotech crops are grown in the county.

    Instead, Ventria's application to expand beyond the 100 acres of experimental rice it has been permitted to grow since 1997 has caused a widespread stir over biotechnology among California farmers and consumers not seen since the genetically engineered tomato Flavr Savr was approved for sale in 1994. The tomato was taken off the market three years later after it ran into production and shipping problems.

    Last week, a sharply divided subcommittee of the California Rice Commission voted to support Ventria's application to expand. The application now is pending before the California Department of Food and Agriculture, which also needs to approve the company's plans and is expected to rule soon.

    The 6-5 vote came only after months of debate among rice farmers, many of whom fear losing European and Asian customers concerned about the biotech rice accidentally mixing with conventional crops.

    "We have some wonderful Japanese customers and their concerns and their confidence is extremely important to us," said Butte County rice grower Bryce Lundberg. "We should listen to the Asia market."

    Many European and Japanese consumers are mistrustful of genetically engineered crops and other changes to their food supply because of government mishandling of mad cow disease in the past.

    Further, some growers in California's $500 million-a-year rice industry are afraid that a Ventria mistake could harm their business if biotech rice somehow finds its way into their conventional crops.

    Previous biotechnology snafus like the Starlink controversy in 2000, when a biotech corn not approved for human consumption was accidentally mixed with other crops, triggered food recalls and caused a worldwide drop in corn prices.

    Last year the USDA fined ProdiGene Inc. of College Station, Texas, some $250,000 for failing to completely remove corn genetically engineered to produce a pig vaccine before growing soybeans.

    Ventria and the head of the rice commission said there's little chance of the company's engineered rice mixing with conventional crops. The company has agreed to grow its rice in an undisclosed Southern California location, at least 100 miles from the nearest rice farm and 300 miles from the center of most rice production north of Sacramento.

    Nearly all the state's 500,000 acres of rice fields are in Northern California. Further, rice is "self pollinating" and the chances of animals, insects and wind mixing biotech varieties with conventional crops is slim, Ventria's CEO Scott Deeter said.

    "We have multiple safeguards," Deeter said.

    Deeter said growing medicines in plants like Ventria intends could help cut the cost of drug manufacturing.

    What's more, rice commission chief Tim Johnson said he believes the overseas markets won't be affected by Ventria's expansion plans. He said California rice farmers already adhere to strict guidelines addressing pesticide use that are respected by international customers and that is not expected to change because of Ventria's plans.

    "The concerns are high," Johnson said. "But at the end of the day, those concerns won't be realized."

  • Biotech firm likely to miss opportunity to plant pharmaceutical rice

    By Paul Jacobs
    San Jose Mercury News

    A Sacramento biotechnology company seeking approval for the first commercial crop genetically engineered to produce a drug has probably lost its chance to get a crucial permit to plant the crop this year.

    The company, Ventria Bioscience, has apparently run out of time to get federal approval to plant up to 120 acres of its genetically modified rice by the end of the current planting season, according to the federal agency that must issue the permit.

    ``I think they decided to forgo any commercial planting for this year,'' said Neil Hoffman, who directs the biotechnology regulatory program for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. ``Our understanding is they wanted to do some field testing, but nothing on a commercial scale.''

    Ventria needs both state and federal permits to proceed. Last week, it won an initial round of state approval from an advisory committee, but still faces a decision from the state food and agriculture secretary.

    If approved, Ventria's proposal would be California's first commercial planting of a genetically engineered ``pharm'' crop, which contains human medicines. Some rice growers and a number of environmental groups, including Consumers Union and the Sierra Club, oppose using food crops to grow prescription drugs because of the risk of contamination of the food supply.

    `Fingers crossed'

    Ventria Chief Executive Scott Deeter concedes that it will be difficult to get a large crop in the ground this year but is hoping that the federal process could be sped up.

    ``I've got my fingers crossed, but I'm not making predictions,'' he said. ``It's timing, weather and the ability to move quickly at the USDA.''

    The company has been field-testing rice that is modified to produce two human proteins that guard against infection. Found in human milk and tears, the proteins are natural antibiotics that could be added to baby formula or put to other commercial uses.

    Worries about mixing

    Last week, a California Rice Commission advisory committee endorsed the company's proposal to begin planting up to 120 acres of the genetically engineered rice, but limited the crop to 10 counties outside of California's Central Valley rice belt. Critics worry that mixing of seed or the rice itself could contaminate the non-pharmaceutical food crop, creating the potential for health problems and damaging sales of standard California rice varieties.

    Under rules for agricultural emergencies, the state Secretary of Food and Agriculture now has until the end of the month to make a decision on whether or not to allow the company to go ahead this year.

    Opponents have argued that there is no emergency and that Ventria's proposal should go through a standard state review, a process that could take several months.

    But even as Ventria was publicly asking the state to act quickly on its plan, the company quietly amended its application to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which must also approve the proposal before the crop can be planted.

    The amended documents ask to test the rice on 14 acres at an undisclosed location in Northern California -- the same kind of field trial that has been allowed in the past under Ventria's existing state and federal permits.

    The USDA's Hoffman says it would now be virtually impossible for the company to get a permit for a larger planting in another county in time for the current growing season.

    ``They need to identify the site,'' Hoffman said in an interview Monday. ``We need to convince ourselves that the site was chosen wisely. One of the exercises is to look at threatened or endangered species for that area and that can vary county to county.''

    120 days for review

    Once the environmental assessment is done, he said, the USDA has 120 days to review the plan.

    The process could not be completed quickly enough to allow Ventria to begin planting, even in Imperial County, far to the south, where rice could be planted in July.

    Opponents of Ventria's plan wonder why the company is racing to win approval from the state when it seems unlikely to be able to plant this year. ``What's the emergency?'' asked Renata Brillinger of Californians for GE-Free Agriculture.

    ``We want these pharm crops to be reviewed very rigorously,'' said Jane Rissler, a plant pathologist at the Union of Concerned Scientists. ``We basically don't want pharmaceuticals produced in food crops because of the possibility of contamination of the food supply.''

    But Ventria's Deeter says the plans have had several months of public review before the rice commission's advisory committee. ``I don't see the benefit to society to slow it down,'' he said. ``I don't think that's what's best for the state of California.''

  • County asks for delay on rice decision

    The San Luis Obispo Tribune
    April 7, 2004 Wednesday
    Stephanie Finucane

    San Luis Obispo County will ask the state Food and Agriculture secretary to delay a decision on whether genetically engineered rice can be grown here.

    The secretary is scheduled to announce a decision on Thursday, but county officials say they need time to study the issue.

    "This is a huge change in what we're doing," Supervisor Peg Pinard said during the board meeting Tuesday. "We have had no discussion in this county of where we want to go. That's a huge mistake."

    While the issue wasn't on the board's agenda, several speakers voiced concerns during public comment, and County Agricultural Commissioner Bob Lilley gave a brief update. He explained that the county is one of 10 being considered as a "potential site" for growing the experimental rice crop, though he said he was not aware of any suitable places where it could be grown here.

    Supervisor Shirley Bianchi said she planned to write her own letter to the state, since there wasn't time for action by the entire board.

    "I don't even want us listed as a potential site," said Bianchi.

    While there was no formal motion, supervisors agreed that county Administrator David Edge should contact the state and ask for a postponement. The board also scheduled a staff report on the issue for April 20.

    Sacramento-based Ventria Bioscience is seeking approval to grow the experimental rice crop for pharmaceutical purposes, though its use has yet to be approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

    San Luis Obispo was chosen as a possible site for the crop because it's far enough away from the rice fields of the San Joaquin and Sacramento valleys to make cross pollination between engineered rice and food rice less likely.

    But several speakers who addressed the Board of Supervisors during public comment cited instances in which regular crops have been contaminated by genetically engineered strains. They urged board members to write to the agriculture secretary and ask for a delay, and pointed out that Mendocino County has banned genetically engineered crops there.

    Two local organizations -- the Environmental Center of San Luis Obispo County and SLO GE Free -- are introducing a ballot measure that would forbid the planting of genetically engineered crops in the county. To qualify for the November ballot, at least 8,100 signatures must be gathered by the end of May.