Protein rice suffers setback

Ruling allows more public comment on engineered crops.

By Edie Lau -- Bee Science Writer

Published Saturday, April 10, 2004

The state agriculture secretary Friday rejected a recommendation to allow commercial production on an emergency basis of rice containing human proteins.

The move throws into doubt a Sacramento company's plans to make the nation's first drug grown from genetically engineered crops.

The decision means the public - which already is raising a clamor - will have more time to speak up before a final decision is rendered.

"That opportunity for prior comment may only be suspended in circumstances involving specified demonstrated imminent threats," John C. Dyer, chief counsel, wrote on behalf of Agriculture Secretary A.G. Kawamura in a letter to the California Rice Commission, a trade group.

A subcommittee of the rice commission voted 6-5 last week to recommend allowing Ventria Bioscience to grow engineered rice on commercial-scale plots - provided it do so far from where food rice is cultivated.

Specifically, the panel approved planting the rice in San Luis Obispo, Kern, Santa Barbara, Ventura, Los Angeles, Orange, San Bernardino, Riverside, San Diego and Imperial counties.

The subcommittee called its action an emergency to let Ventria ramp up production this spring.

Lorenzo Pope, the panelist who made the motion for an emergency action, was not surprised by Friday's decision. "We felt there was a high probability it would be denied, just because there was such high public interest," Pope said.

In the past two weeks, the secretary received more than 1,400 comments - some in form letters - mostly against the proposal.

Although Kawamura turned down the emergency action, he appeared to be sympathetic to Ventria's quest.

Kawamura "is prepared to process a regulations package relative to the production and handling of this strain of rice," Dyer's letter states.

But first, Dyer wrote, the secretary wants more information from the commission about the federal permits Ventria needs. He also directed the commission to consult groups affected in the designated planting areas.

Exactly what information the secretary seeks is unclear. Jena Moore, an office technician in the state Department of Food and Agriculture Office of Public Affairs, said the department had no comment beyond the letter.

How big a setback Friday's decision represents to Ventria also is unclear. Company officials did not return telephone calls seeking comment.

Making matters even murkier, the U.S. Department of Agriculture said Friday that Ventria had not applied for a permit to plant its rice in Southern California.

Moreover, the company has revised its federal permit for Northern California plantings to 14 acres, down from 120 acres, Neil Hoffman, a director in USDA's Biotechnology Regulatory Services, said in a e-mail exchange.

Ventria, originally named Applied Phytologics, has been growing engineered rice in outdoor experimental plots in Northern California since 1997.

Ventria CEO Scott Deeter said in an interview in January that the company hoped to plant 65 acres each of two types of bioengineered rice this year.

One rice is genetically modified to produce human lactoferrin; the other, human lysozyme. Both are proteins found naturally in breast milk that are believed to have a therapeutic effect, and would be produced by Ventria for use in rehydration solutions for treating diarrhea.

Matt Gardner, president of BayBIO, an industry association in South San Francisco, interpreted Friday's decision to mean that a new treatment for illness will be delayed in reaching sick people.

At the same time, Gardner said, "I think the secretary's position is reasonable."

People opposing the planting of genetically engineered pharmaceutical rice were pleased by the decision. "I'm glad it's not going to go under emergency rule because we think this clearly deserves more public debate," said Dan Jacobsen, legislative director of Environment California, which opposes growing drug compounds in food crops.


About the Writer The Bee's Edie Lau can be reached at (916) 321-1098 or elau@sacbee.com.