Biotech firm seeks friendlier fields afar

By Mike Lee -- Bee Staff Writer

Published Thursday, June 10, 2004

An embattled Sacramento biotech company is looking for greener pastures in Iowa as it scales back production of pharmaceutical rice in California.

Ventria Bioscience is planting a tiny test crop of barley in Iowa. It has been genetically engineered to grow lactoferrin, one of the same drug compounds the company has been growing in test plots of rice.

The company chose Iowa because barley is not grown commercially there - a consideration that didn't prevent it from pursuing pharmaceutical rice production in California.

"That is ... really a bonus," CEO Scott Deeter said of the barley-free state.

He also cited Iowa's "streamlined and efficient regulatory process" and the "strong support of a very productive agriculture region" as reasons for choosing Iowa. The field test is on a plot just five-one-hundredths of an acre in size, according to a federal database.

In California, Ventria ran into trouble this spring with plans to ramp up production of rice genetically engineered to produce lactoferrin and another common human protein, lysozyme. The company wants to use them in products to treat severe dehydration.

Opposition mostly stemmed from fears about the impact that pharmaceutical rice could have on the state's $500 million rice industry, especially with Asian buyers who reject biotech rice.

Those concerns became public earlier this year during a unique California rice industry review of Ventria's plans. A 2000 state law gives the industry the right to put conditions on new varieties of rice that could affect the existing strains.

That monthslong process is not done, but it's unclear whether Ventria even wants to keep doing business in California, where it's been opposed by rice growers and organic-farming activists activists.

A federal database of biotech field tests shows that the company had approval for 93 acres of its "pharma" rice in California in 2003. This year, it's down to 1 acre and Deeter said he's unsure about next year.

"We are really going through a full evaluation of different locations," said Deeter.

Like every other state, Iowa lacks the kind of review available to California rice growers.

"We are kind of staying neutral on this," said Machelle Shaffer, spokeswoman for the Iowa Department of Agriculture.

Iowa defers to a secretive federal sign-off process for biotech crops that typically does not involve public comment and shields many company documents from public view.

Last week, the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a scientific watchdog group in Washington, D.C., released a report critical of federal regulation of drugs grown in food crops.

"We would need much more of an extensive system in place to ensure that ... they don't (contaminate) the food supply," said Gregory Jaffe, director of the center's biotechnology project.

During the past year, there's been a steady rise in the number of "pharma" field test applications to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The agency has promised new efforts to increase public scrutiny of biopharming, which has been sought by the food industry to reassure antsy consumers.


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