Panel OKs bid to raise modified rice

By Mike Lee -- Bee Staff Writer

Published Tuesday, March 30, 2004

YUBA CITY - A sharply divided California rice industry on Monday approved the nation's first commercial-scale planting of a crop genetically engineered to produce drug compounds.

Plans by Ventria Bioscience of Sacramento to grow rice containing human proteins mark a major step toward fulfilling some promises of biotechnology by using plants to cheaply produce drugs.

If Ventria stumbles - for instance, by allowing its rice to mingle with food rice - it would spell doom for the state's $500 million rice industry centered in the Sacramento Valley.

"We are fearful," said Maxwell rice farmer Joe Carrancho. "If a mistake is made, the farmer is going to pay big time."

The 6-5 decision by a subcommittee of the California Rice Commission likely means that Ventria will expand production this spring under some of the strictest crop safeguards in the nation. Its rice produces common human proteins that could be used in oral rehydration products to treat severe diarrhea.

The company said it is seeking approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration before the proteins are sold in a commercial product.

"It was a good day," said Ventria Chief Executive Scott Deeter. "We weren't sure, quite frankly, what would be the outcome."

The key to the industry panel's approval, according to its members, was that Ventria agreed to grow its commercial rice in Southern California, outside the state's 500,000-acre rice belt. Under terms set Monday, the company can continue to grow rice in its smaller research plots in undisclosed Northern California locations as it has done for years.

C. Lorenzo Pope, a grower and chairman of the science committee that evaluated Ventria's safeguards, made the motion to approve the protocol. "I think there would have been a 100 percent 'no' vote if they had insisted on staying in the Sacramento Valley," he said.

Deeter said the company expects to grow about 120 acres of its novel rice this year, though Monday's agreement does not limit the number of acres. Counties selected for Ventria's commercial production are at least one county removed from food rice fields.

Because the panel called Monday's action an emergency measure in deference to Ventria's spring planting schedule, there will be only limited public comment before a final decision is made.

The California Department of Food and Agriculture has 10 days to approve or reject the proposal and won't take public comment. If that agency signs off, the next stop is the state Office of Administrative Law, where published guidelines allow five days for written comments during its two-week review.

The California rice industry has control over production conditions for novel rice varieties thanks to a state law - the only one of its kind in the nation - passed by the Legislature in 2000.

The law gives rice growers something they can show buyers - especially those in the $100 million Japanese market - to highlight how much has been done to prevent contamination of food rice.

"The rice industry is very fortunate to have this," said Charley Mathews, a Marysville grower and member of the industry panel.

Hashed out over six months, the protocol contains several pages of growing, storing and handling conditions. For instance, Ventria must use dedicated equipment, keep detailed logs of virtually everything it does and allow for third-party inspections.

Even opponents acknowledge how hard the company has worked to limit risks.

"We are now comfortable," Pope said.

There's still uneasiness, however, about the fact that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has not set a standard for how much of Ventria's proteins would be allowable if they turned up in food rice. At least for now, that means that the tiniest bit of contamination could lead to a rice recall and a huge black eye for California rice.

Contamination could occur if trucks spilled Ventria rice or birds carried it to other fields, for example.

Industry panel chairman Michael Boeger, a rice grower, voted against Ventria's plan, saying it's "not worth the risk at this time."

Ventria CEO Deeter on Monday emphasized how committed his 20-employee company is to training and redundant safety measures. "It's something that we take very seriously," he said.

Such precautions aren't convincing for Colusa agriculture consultant Jeremy Zwinger: "I don't believe this can be contained."

The possibility of a large-scale planting of genetically engineered rice this spring has galvanized a band of growers who oppose genetically engineered rice, as well as state and national groups that are trying to limit the spread of GE crops.

One after another on Monday, they tried to convince the industry committee that drugs should not be grown in food crops and that allowing drugs in rice threatens to undermine years of marketing California rice around the world. Consumers in many countries have rejected genetically engineered crops and are especially worried about the accidental mixing of food crops and pharmaceutical crops.

Renata Brillinger, campaign coordinator for Californians for GE-Free Agriculture, produced four form letters from large Japanese consumer and organic groups that predict that Ventria's rice will "seriously threaten" the Japanese market for California rice.

But those arguments - no public comments supported Ventria's proposal - failed to sway the industry board, and opponents were left to strategize about legal action and public pressure to stop genetically engineered rice.

"Just the fact that the vote was split is indication that healthy public discussion is needed," Brillinger said.

At the Biotechnology Industry Organization in Washington, D.C., spokeswoman Lisa Dry said Monday's action highlights how people accept the controversial technology when they learn more about it.

"Through discussion, through education, when folks have a better understanding of the technology, they have allowed it to move forward."


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