Plans remain on schedule for some 150 acres of Ventria Bioscience genetically modified rice to be planted in the Missouri Bootheel. The rice, which contains human genes, has many farmers and environmental groups concerned. They fear it will contaminate nearby food-grade rice and thus ruin markets. Ventria, meanwhile, said the worries are overblown and the rice will provide cheaper medicines.

Now, add Riceland Foods and Anheuser Busch to those opposing the pharmaceutical rice. In late March, both companies released letters stating such.

The Anheuser-Busch letter reads, in part: “Anheuser-Busch is very concerned that Ventria's genetically engineered product will enter the Missouri rice supply through gene transfer as a contaminant… If it does, Anheuser-Busch will see its supply of rice decline because we will not use rice that isn't appropriate for food consumption… We also then will have to institute special measures to ensure that the genetically modified rice is not mixed with our rice. The drop in supply combined with those special measures would most likely increase our cost of ingredients…

“At this time, we cannot estimate the costs to Anheuser-Busch if the Ventria rice contaminates the Missouri commercial rice crop, but we would expect the cost increase to be substantial because suppliers will be required to test every load of rice coming into their mills and into our breweries.”

Meanwhile, Riceland's position “is that we're all for technology and new developments,” said Bill Reed, Riceland vice president. “The agriculture system we have today is built on that premise. Frankly, I believe farmers, as a group, are among the fastest adopters of new technology — especially since WWII.”

New technologies — like plant made pharmaceuticals (PMPs) — hold great promise for farmers as well as consumers, he said. “However, the rice market isn't ready for some of them. That's the key. There are other crops where that hurdle has been crossed. But in rice, there is much concern among our customers — both foreign and domestic — regarding the prospect of genetic modification of rice or the contamination of food grade rice.”

As a farmer-owned cooperative, Riceland has 9,000 owners who “charge us with marketing their crop,” said Reed. “To do that we must have buyers.”

Riceland handles over half the rice produced in the Bootheel. “We believe that probably 75 percent of the Missouri crop is exported. There isn't one foreign country that accepts GM rice currently. In fact, many require certification that there is no GM in the product they're buying from us.

“Something I've seen with my own eyes is the Iraqi tender that was issued in December. That document said ‘no GM’ — there's just no tolerance.”

If contaminated, the remaining 25 percent of the Bootheel crop sold domestically wouldn't have much of market either. USDA has yet to certify a single PMP for human consumption, said Reed.

“Food manufacturers — cereal, beer, baby food — especially those with a franchise name, are very sensitive to this as well. That sensitivity was further intensified a couple of years ago with the (Starlink) situation with GM corn getting into the taco shells. After that, our buyers started asking, ‘We're not getting any GM rice in our loads are we?’”

Even countries one would suspect are interested in calories above all else are very firm in rejecting GM rice.

How has Riceland been able to certify their rice is GM free? “By claiming there's no commercial production of GM rice,” said Reed.

If Ventria's rice is planted, certification would instantly become harder for Riceland.

In speaking with Missouri Department of Agriculture officials, Riceland “has been open and frank in discussing these issues. I looked at Missouri production and for 2004 they produced 195,000 acres with an average yield of 6,800 pounds. That was a great yield for them. They produced 29.5 million bushels. I plugged in a value of $3.20 per bushel. So, annually, their rice crop is worth $94.3 million. I don't expect their production to decline, either.”

Admittedly, last year had an almost ideal production season. But Reed doesn't believe reaching the $95 million mark yearly is out the question.

“We believe there's enough potential in Missouri to double their rice acres: they've got the land and they've got the water. The natural resources are there to take advantage of. The Bootheel grows some gorgeous rice.”

Reed said he's explained all this to Missouri state officials. “I told them that not only is this a $95 million crop but that Bootheel farmers have tremendous investment in land preparation as well as equipment. Because they own the co-op, they also have a stake in the storage facilities at Dudley. Those were expanded two years ago and you can't even tell it — the line of trucks is as long as it ever has been. And rice facilities are also being expanded in Poplar Bluff and New Madrid. That's the farmers' money.

“Those facts result in a significant impact on Bootheel agriculture and the state's economy. And this isn't a pipe-dream citing numbers for the future — this is valuable right now!”

Should northeast Arkansas rice farmers also be concerned? Will Riceland's customers consider the Missouri/Arkansas border enough of a barrier?

“Well, if you're in Mississippi County, Ark., and cross the border into Missouri, it's hard to tell the difference.” said Reed. “That's certainly an interesting issue to consider.”


e-mail: dbennett@primediabusiness.com