Groups target altering of rice

A coalition wants the state to suspend the production of drug compounds in crops.

By Mike Lee -- Bee Staff Writer

Published Thursday, July 22, 2004

Four consumer and environmental groups Wednesday called on California officials to suspend the production of pharmaceutical compounds in rice, saying such novel crops inevitably will contaminate the food supply.

During the proposed moratorium, the groups want an independent state examination of the economic, environmental and human health effects of the experimental crop.

There's no indication, however, that state agencies will enter the complex arena of pharmaceutical crops without a legislative mandate. "It ought to remain a federal issue," said Steve Lyle, spokesman for the state Department of Food and Agriculture.

The environmental coalition's central arguments are that federal oversight is lax and that the state's rice industry, valued at $500 million a year, is jeopardized by the threat of pollution from rice that is genetically engineered to produce drug compounds.

Both issues recently were raised in a special report by The Bee and are likely to be on the minds of Butte County voters in November when they face a ballot measure that would ban the production of all genetically engineered crops in that rice-dependent county.

"Californians cannot rely on the federal government to protect the state's consumers, farmers and environment from the potential harms of this experimental and unproven pharmaceutical rice," Michael Hansen, senior research associate with Consumers Union in New York, said in a statement.

The other sponsoring organizations are Friends of the Earth, an international environmental group; the Center for Food Safety, a consumer watchdog in Washington, D.C.; and Environment California, a Los Angeles-based advocacy organization.

Not everyone, however, fears the advance of pharmaceutical crops, a small segment of the growing worldwide biotech crop industry. Most genetically engineered crops offer growers easier pest and weed control by making plants immune to herbicides or bugs.

Some farmers view plant-made pharmaceuticals as a possible new source of income, while companies such as Sacramento's Ventria Bioscience say they offer lower production costs that could help alleviate global medicine shortages.

A 21-page report issued Wednesday by the environmental coalition raises questions about possible food safety and economic issues spawned by the spread of "pharma" rice beyond a few isolated test plots. It targets rice developed by Ventria, which this spring aimed to ramp up production of rice that produces two common human proteins expected to be used to treat severe dehydration.

Ventria aimed to grow more than 100 acres of its novel product in California in 2004, but federal permits show it's down to just one acre after the company got snarled in a lengthy rice-industry review process.

Company officials have said they are looking at growing their crops in other states next year, at least partly in response to the company's controversy-plagued reception in California.

The state agriculture agency is required to sign off on new biotech rice varieties by virtue of rice industry-sponsored legislation in 2000. That legislation doesn't directly address pharmaceutical crops or specify the scope of the state review.

At the Center for Food Safety in San Francisco, West Coast Director Rebecca Spector said her coalition is delivering the report to every state legislator in hopes of forcing a broad investigation.

The state Legislature has had spotty interest in biotech plants in recent years, holding a hearing about threats posed by the technology in 2003 but failing to take action.

"This is actually a critical time for California to step up and do the proper ... testing of this rice before any more is planted," Spector said.

About the Writer

The Bee's Mike Lee can be reached at (916) 321-1102 or