Biotech company cultivates new field

By Mike Lee and Edie Lau -- Bee Staff Writers

Published Sunday, January 25, 2004

A Sacramento biotechnology company is pushing the $500 million California rice industry to a new frontier with a proposal to grow commercial rice engineered to make drug compounds.

The controversial plan is ambitious and somewhat mysterious. The company, Ventria Bioscience, will not reveal where it hopes to cultivate what would be America's first genetically engineered plant-produced pharmaceuticals to reach the market.

Citing fear of vandalism by militant environmentalists, Ventria's chief executive officer, Scott Deeter, will say only that somewhere in California the company hopes to grow 130 acres of rice that produce two anti-microbial proteins.

A California Rice Commission committee struggling to write rules for the pharmaceutical rice will review Ven-tria's plans at a public meeting Thursday.

It seems likely that Ventria will continue to farm where it has grown engineered rice in experimental plots since 1997: in the northern Central Valley, the heart of California rice country.

And that has local rice farmers' anxiety levels soaring.

"I feel very vulnerable that genetically modified rice could come into the state ... and cause significant disruption to our ability to market our rice to our customers," said Bryce Lundberg, director of organic certification for Lundberg Family Farms, a 67-year-old Richvale business that is the nation's largest organic rice processor.

Lundberg -- who is leading a campaign to bar biotech rice from California -- and others in the rice industry worry about scaring off Japanese buyers, who are wary of genetic engineering.

Ken Chinen, a Japan-born professor of international business at California State University, Sacramento, said that with the recent discovery of mad cow disease in this country and the Asian chicken flu epidemic, the timing is terrible for introducing anything that raises doubts about food safety.

"Japanese consumers are becoming very sensitive about the safety of food, especially from foreign countries," Chinen said.

Deeter said his company's rice, while not intended as food, is safe for human consumption. And Ventria will work hard to keep its rice isolated, Deeter said, though he thinks it's unnecessary to plant the rice far from food rice fields.

"Rice grows where it grows," he said. "There's no risk here."

This spring -- perhaps in March, if weather cooperates -- the company would like to plant 65 acres each of two biotech rice varieties.

In a few years, Deeter said, Ventria hopes to expand to as many as 1,000 acres.

Under state law, Ventria's plan must be reviewed by a 12-member committee of scientists, growers and business representatives operating under the state Rice Commission. The law, the California Rice Certification Act of 2000, reflects the state's interest in protecting its rice markets. It gives California's agricultural secretary final say on growing restrictions and sets fines of up to $5,000 per violation.

Ventria submitted a sample protocol to the Rice Commission last March and has met with the review committee three times to hash out details of a more specific containment plan.

"We still have some significant work to do," said Tim Johnson, president of the California Rice Commission. "Our future depends on doing it right."

Last week, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced its plans to consider tightening its regulation of pharmaceutical compounds grown in food, in part because of rapid advances in development of the technology.

But the Ventria proposal will not be affected because it already has been approved by the USDA as a field test, said Jim Rogers, a spokesman for the agency's Animal Plant Health Inspection Service.

Rogers said Ventria must comply with its existing USDA permit, which requires special precautions to prevent the escape of gene-carrying pollen to nearby crops, including an unplanted buffer zone around the field.

"We want to make sure these plants don't affect other plants," he said.

Rice farmers have long known that scientists were moving genes around in ways not possible through traditional breeding, with a goal of inventing new crop types. Still, they thought pharmaceutical rice was a ways off.

"We have jumped all the way to the most sensitive topic," said Kent S. McKenzie, director of the grower-funded California Cooperative Rice Research Foundation, who serves on the committee reviewing the Ventria plan.

The advent of pharmaceutical rice is not entirely unexpected, though. Ventria has been in Sacramento since 1993, a startup founded by a University of California, Davis, biologist.

Originally named Applied Phytologics, it hatched from the idea that plants could serve as biological factories that cheaply produce proteins with medicinal and nutritional benefits.

The company planted its first engineered rice outdoors in 1997. After exploring several possibilities, including baby formula made with plant-engineered ingredients, it settled on two products for its market debut: human lysozyme (LY so zime) and human lactoferrin (lak toe FAIR in).

Both are proteins found in mother's milk, thought to reduce infections in nursing infants.

Deeter said the company intends to sell the rice-derived lysozyme and lactoferrin for use in oral rehydration products to treat severe diarrhea.

He said 65 acres of Ventria rice could generate 1,400 pounds of lactoferrin, enough to treat at least 650,000 sick children. The same acreage of lysozyme rice would yield enough protein to treat 6.5 million patients.

Dr. William Greenough III, a professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins University, said oral rehydration solutions, a mixture of sugar and electrolytes, save the lives of more than 3 million people a year worldwide.

Greenough said adding anti-microbial proteins is appealing because existing products don't tackle causes of diarrhea; they merely prevent dehydration.

Despite the potential health benefits, the notion that a genetically engineered crop would have absolutely no hazard may be a hard sell for the public.

"There's no such thing as 100 percent certainty when you're talking about living organisms," said Doreen Stabinsky, a former CSUS environmental studies professor with a doctorate in genetics from UC Davis.

Now a scientific adviser for Greenpeace International, Stabinsky helped coordinate a Greenpeace "action" in 2001 that publicly pinpointed Ventria's rice in a Sutter County field.

Food industry trade groups also have expressed reservations about plant pharmaceuticals.

"This is a technology that deserves to blossom," said Stephanie Childs, spokeswoman for Grocery Manufacturers of America, which represents the nation's name-brand foods. "However, we are concerned that ... regulations are not in place to ensure the safety of the food supply. ... It would only take one accident to destroy an entire industry sector."

Mainstream scientists are similarly wary. Last week, a National Research Council committee examining biological methods for containing genetically engineered organisms recommended using non-food "host organisms" for products that should be kept out of the food supply.

Such concerns are based on the difficulty of corralling biotech genes. In November 2002, for instance, USDA inspectors discovered experimental pharmaceutical corn growing in Nebraska amid soybeans.

The biotech industry, once bullish on the prospect of growing drugs in plants, is pulling back. Nationwide, the number of field experiments on plant-made pharmaceuticals is down from a peak of 19 in 2001, to four in 2003.

Deeter said Ventria is sensitive to concerns about the escape of biotech genes, which is why the company engineers crops such as rice and barley that are self-pollinating, thus less likely to breed with crops in nearby fields.

The company's processing facility is within 50 miles of where the rice is grown, Deeter said. Ventria leases the fields but owns all the equipment, used solely on its own rice.

Ventria's proposal under review by the Rice Commission committee involves about 50 procedures the company will use to keep its rice out of the food chain.

Among them: sealing truck containers that carry Ventria rice, keeping 100-foot buffers between the company's fields and conventional varieties, and providing a test kit so inspectors can monitor for escaped genes.

The draft proposal is light on some details, including how Ventria will prevent birds from spreading its rice; what constitutes "proper" disposal of rice plants; and whether the company will notify nearby growers.

Deeter said he worries that if the location becomes public, anti-biotech activists will destroy Ventria's crops, as they did in 1999 at UC Davis and elsewhere.

Besides state and USDA hurdles, pharmaceuticals also are overseen by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. But Ventria is categorizing its rice as "medical food" -- which does not require FDA review.

Ventria does plan to voluntarily submit documents to FDA, Deeter said, demonstrating that its proteins are safe enough to be consumed in ordinary food.


About the Writer The Bee's Mike Lee can be reached at (916) 321-1102 or mflee@sacbee.com.


Related graphic:

Rules for rice [108k JPG]