Ventria Bioscience has moved into Missouri, promising value-added crops for rice farmers and cheaper medicines for those suffering, among other maladies, dehydration and anemia. In a few weeks, Ventria will plant pharmaceutical rice that contains human genes. Though microscopic, those genes are massive red flags to the many Bootheel producers worried about rattling already unstable markets.

“I’ve followed rice marketing and trade issues for years,” said Bob Papanos, vice president of international programs for the U.S. Rice Producers Association. “Rice farmers are right to be worried. I’m sure farmers recall StarLink and Prodigy in Nebraska. If there’s even a hint that Ventria’s pharm-rice has contaminated food-grade rice, we’re in serious trouble.

“Actually, foreign trade negotiators can use this against us whether there’s contamination or not… This could actually give them leverage in trade talks. And anyone who thinks any fallout could be kept isolated in the Bootheel doesn’t know what they’re talking about. Folks overseas don’t pay attention to the Missouri/Arkansas border — they just see one big swath of rice running down through the Delta. That’s the way it is.”

How vulnerable?

Markets aside, how vulnerable to contamination is conventional rice?

Not very, claimed Scott Deeter, Ventria CEO, who responded in writing to Delta Farm Press questions.

“Ventria utilizes a closed system of production that includes self-pollinating plants to produce plant-made pharmaceuticals,” wrote Deeter. “Self-pollinating plants contain the male and female reproduction system within the same plant and do not require wind or insects for pollination and reproduction. This significantly reduces the risk from cross-pollination.

“Also, Ventria produces its product in the seed of rice only during the last month of the growing phase of the plant. Thus, the product is not present in the leaf, stems, or root material.”

Not surprisingly, environmental watchdog group Friends of the Earth said Ventria’s safety claims are shaky. Bill Freese, a research analyst with FOE, wrote two comprehensive papers regarding Ventria’s pharm-rice. Currently in Missouri, Freese said, the company has “been all over the map with regard to what they plan to do. They like to talk about saving children, but I’ve also heard them say it will be too expensive for that particular application.

“The latest suggestion they’ve made is they want to use these proteins as supplements to granola bars and yogurt. They’ve also talked about poultry feed, topical treatment for wounds, all kinds of things.”

FOE’s view

The interest of FOE in this issue isn’t coincidental — the organization has a dog in this fight.

“We have a ‘Safer Foods, Safer Farms’ campaign. This focuses on our desire for mandatory testing and labeling. We also want biotech companies to bear liability when things go wrong, which isn’t the case now. It’s a shame that the government hasn’t made biotech companies own up to their responsibilities.

“There’s just too much risk of (pharm-crop genes) getting into the food supply… There was a case recently with tomato seeds that points this out. A California researcher was doing genetic engineering on some conventional tomato seeds and wasn’t getting results he expected. So he tested them and, it turned out, these seed were genetically engineered. Somewhere along the line, the seeds had been mixed up.

“That kind of stuff happens and the safest course is to keep this type of engineering away from food crops. If they want to use non-food crops for pharmaceuticals, we think it should be done under contained conditions.”

On the Bootheel situation, one of Freese’s major concerns is the dispersal of Ventria’s pharm-rice seed by animals.

“Ventria said that won’t happen, that all their rice will be digested. But that isn’t believable. Birds eat huge amounts of rice and the Bootheel is on the Mississippi flyway. Around 5 percent of a harvest is left behind on the ground.

“Even a small percentage of this pharm-rice getting out — and it wouldn’t take much: maybe 1 in 1,000 grains or even less — and it would all be over with.

“Another concern is human error. You can’t exclude that because, as a race, we’re fallible. Mix-ups happen and tasks aren’t completed as they should be.”

The Nebraska Prodigy incident in 2002 is a good example of this, said Freese. Volunteer biotech corn plants sprouted in soybean fields. Based on that, soybean fields, at a cost of millions of dollars, had to be destroyed.

“An important thing to remember is USDA said the volunteer plants came from a corn field planted a year earlier. The size of that field was 1 acre. And they couldn’t control the volunteer plants from that single acre.”

Freese said if biotech companies want to grow GMO crops, they should have liability insurance to protect producers. This concern was solidified, he said, when it became clear Prodigy had no money to buy back contaminated soybeans.

“The USDA gave them a low-interest loan to help pay their fine. That’s the situation you get into with some of these biotech companies. They don’t have a lot of money and when they get into trouble, farmers are left holding the bag.

“Now, we’re talking about 200 acres of Ventria’s pharm-rice. To most producers, that doesn’t seem like much. But when you’ve got to control where every single grain goes, there’s no way to guarantee it won’t be dispersed. And if you pin them down, Ventria will admit that.”

Answering concerns

Deeter doesn’t categorically deny the charge. However, Ventria, he wrote, “is completely committed to sound stewardship practices and has passed every USDA inspection for the past six years, including eight inspections in 2004. Ventria maintains chain of custody for all of its plant made pharmaceutical crops and we have a very stringent production protocol to maintain quality and containment.

“In order to maintain product quality and as part of Ventria’s commitment to sound stewardship, Ventria has instituted the following production practices:

• “Ventria’s field production will be grown in areas that are separated from commercial rice production by considerable distance.

• “Ventria’s products are manufactured within the seed of self-pollinating rice or barley, which are not wind or insect pollinated plants.

• “Ventria’s field production, storage, grinding and transportation equipment is dedicated only to Ventria’s use and is not used for any commodity rice or barley production.

• “Ventria’s collaborators and field production personnel receive extensive training related to regulatory requirements and Ventria’s standard operating procedures.”

Regarding concerns about viable seed passing through birds’ digestive systems, Deeter said two studies have looked at the issue. “The results of both studies show that rice is highly digestible by waterfowl and that no viable rice passes through the digestive system of ducks or geese. Rice is easily digested by birds, unlike weed seeds that have a hard seed coat. In fact, it is suggested that attracting birds to a field containing red rice is a viable weed management practice because the birds effectively digest the red rice and render in non-viable. Red rice has an even harder seed coat than Ventria’s rice variety, so there is less likelihood of birds transporting rice in this manner.”

How does the company propose to keep its pharm-rice from dispersing to neighboring rice fields through flooding?

“Ventria will have a levee and a 50-foot fallow area around its field to keep all water in the field,” wrote Deeter. “All of the water removed from Ventria’s field will be pumped into a sediment pond. The water will be pumped out of the sediment pond through a screen that will catch any rice seeds that are present in the water.”

How does Ventria propose to keep its pharm-rice through pollen carried on the wind?

“Rice is a self-pollinated plant and the life of its pollen is only a few minutes… Many research studies determined that 10 feet was an adequate distance between rice seed fields to maintain purity of foundation seed (highest purity standards). More recent studies have shown that outcrossing in even adjacent plants is unlikely. No studies have shown outcrossing beyond 30 feet. Since Ventria utilizes a 50-foot fallow area and a distance of more than 4 miles to another rice field, redundant safeguards are in place to prevent (pharm-rice pollen from reaching conventional rice).”

How about dispersal through movement of equipment or human error?

“Ventria owns its own field production, storage, transportation and milling equipment, which is dedicated to Ventria’s production,” wrote Deeter. “In Ventria’s ‘closed’ system of production, viable seed does not leave the farm. It is processed into a non-viable powder before shipment. It is important to clarify that Ventria maintains ownership and chain of custody of the rice or barley throughout the entire production process from the field to the purified protein.”

To keep its field red rice-free, Deeter said Ventria will rely on “manual rouging and/or chemical application. Ventria’s present seed stock (developed in California) is also red-rice free.”

Where now?

Asked if Ventria is preparing for an injunction or lawsuit to prevent it from planting pharm-rice in the Bootheel, Deeter said no.

“I still think there’s a good chance Ventria’s efforts in the Bootheel can be shut down,” said Freese. “The food industry is finally waking up to this — they haven’t been very informed about the situation until now. I believe they’ll now begin to exert their influence. That pressure, along with the Bootheel farmers, can stop this.”

Is FOE planning an injunction?

“I’m not involved in that, although I’ve heard talk. FOE is more interested in getting a discussion going. Rather than do it through legal channels, I’d like this to be defeated on the merits. Bottom line: Ventria can’t guarantee their pharm-rice won’t get out.”

e-mail: dbennett@primediabusiness.com