The customer, insists Sonny Martin, is always right. And Martin is very worried his customers won't like who's moving in next door.

“Farmers have enough going against us without making the markets nervous unnecessarily,” said the chairman of the Missouri Rice Research and Merchandising Council. “It doesn't matter how much I want to help dehydrated children in some awful war zone, it doesn't matter how much I want pharmaceutical crops to be grown successfully and how many value-added dollars they could put in my pocket. All that matters is our customers don't want any medicine in their breakfast cereal.

“In the future, if the markets can be convinced otherwise, fine — I might grow pharm-rice myself. But, right now, are we really willing to damage — or even ruin — our rice markets over this? We could literally be driven out of business by a few acres of this stuff.”

The “stuff” Martin refers to is a genetically modified rice — a plant-made pharmaceutical (PMP) — developed by Ventria Bioscience. According to the company, the rice is engineered to produce proteins found in human saliva, tears and mother's milk. The proteins can be extracted from the rice to make cheaper medicines.

Beginning in April, Ventria plans to grow 150 acres of its rice on a farm near Chaffee, Mo., on the northern edge of Missouri rice country. Depending on the source, the nearest conventional rice field is either 4 or 5 miles distant.

That isn't nearly far enough for those opposing the pharm-rice. Cross-contamination with conventional rice is the most cited fear. But they're also fearful that even the proximity of pharm-rice to conventional could be a problem.

“Perception is reality,” said Martin. “If those buying our rice even perceive a problem, it could be trouble.”

Risk versus benefit

Ventria said worries in the Bootheel are overblown. In a written response to Delta Farm Press questions, Scott Deeter, Ventria CEO, explained the benefits of pharm-rice: “Ventria is producing two proteins, lactoferrin and lysozyme… These proteins have antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory and iron binding properties. Ventria is currently developing an oral rehydration solution including lactoferrin and lysozyme to manage diarrhea and dehydration.

Ventria believes that the addition of these two proteins to an oral rehydration solution will provide improved management and intestinal protection, not just rehydration of the child.

According to the World Health Organization, on a worldwide basis 1.3 million children under the age of five die of acute diarrhea… Ventria utilizes rice and barley to produce these therapeutic proteins and estimates the cost would increase by more than 30 times to produce the same proteins using other systems of production.

Plant-made pharmaceuticals have the potential to provide patients with the benefit of greater access to necessary medicines.”

“If Ventria wants to help people, it's noble,” said Martin, who annually farms between 700 and 1,200 acres of rice east of Bernie, Mo., in the central Bootheel. “I would never knock that.

“But how big their heart is isn't what we're worried about. Our focus is on the markets and protecting our businesses. Riceland Foods sells rice to 35 countries. Those countries don't have to buy rice from the Bootheel and if they find out this pharmaceutical variety is being grown next door, they may not want our rice any more.

“If that happens, who will make up any market loss? Who will pay if a producer's rice crop is contaminated by this company?”

The big move

Missouri isn't the first stop for Ventria. The company was stationed in California for years. But facing increasing protests against its PMPs there, last year Ventria announced it would shift its base to Northwest Missouri State University (NWMSU) in Maryville, Mo.

“California folks were worried about the same things we are and hounded them out,” said Martin. “Out there, they've got a medium grain market in Japan. Japan accepts no GMOs and they were worried if any contamination happened, they'd lose that market. Sound familiar?”

To show the current level of rancor, even-the location of Ventria's new headquarters has raised eyebrows in the Bootheel.

“Maryville is 400 miles from the nearest rice field,” said Larry Riley, a Bernie, Mo.-area rice farmer who sits on the Missouri Rice Council. “One thing that's deeply disturbing about this is the lack of regard for the state's farmers.

“Ventria has been playing footsy with NWMSU and some state legislators at least since last summer. The NWMSU president was just put on Ventria's board of directors.

“You know, Ventria came to this state because Missouri offered them the best financial package. And yet Bootheel farmers — the taxpayers with the most to lose here — weren't informed about this until it was a done deal. That's just wrong. They were trying to keep this under the radar for as long as possible.”

In writing, Deeter doesn't mention opposition in California as a cause for the company's move. He said last year Ventria evaluated its options for “going forward” and was “heavily recruited by six states in addition to Missouri… Ventria selected Missouri for the following reasons:

  1. The establishment of the Center of Excellence in Plant-made Pharmaceuticals by NWMSU provided the necessary infrastructure for Ventria to commercialize its products.

  2. The economics of field production in Missouri and the high quality land and water resources were attractive compared to Ventria's alternatives, especially California.

  3. The capabilities and expertise of Missouri's growers, especially their experience with biotechnology-based crops such as soybeans and maize.

  4. The state of Missouri is a leader in the development and commercialization of biotechnology… there are many institutions in the region that provide the critical mass of talented people that make knowledge-based businesses like biotechnology successful.”

In his response to Delta Farm Press questions, Deeter wouldn't say if the state of Missouri offered Ventria financial incentives to move.

The StarLink specter

It isn't only foreign countries that are leery of PMPs contaminating the food supply. The U.S. government also has “zero tolerance” for such. With that in mind, there is precedence for worry.

Opponents of Ventria often mention StarLink corn, a GMO containing a protein to protect against insects such as the European corn borer. When it was being grown in the late 1990s, StarLink corn was approved for feed use only — not for human consumption or export. Despite safeguards, however, in 2000, StarLink-contaminated corn found its way into food products, resulting in lawsuits, reduced exports and lower prices for U.S. corn.

“If this pharm-rice contaminates our (conventional) rice, it would make the StarLink fiasco look like a walk in the park,” said Martin. “That should wake everyone up.”

“At least StarLink was approved for feed,” adds John Alter, president of the Arkansas Rice Growers Association. “Ventria's rice isn't even approved for that. That means if there is any contamination, Bootheel rice growers will either have to bury their rice or burn it. It won't be worth (anything).”

On the heels of Ventria's move, and fearing a PMP company could move into Arkansas, the Arkansas Rice Growers Association is behind a bill in the Arkansas legislature to ban commercial growing of pharm-rice inside the state.

“By pushing this bill, not only are we trying to announce to the grower that this should be illegal,” said Alter, “but we're also telling an extremely sensitive market they can trust that Arkansas rice won't be tainted. Don't kid yourself: this is a serious threat to our markets.

“Someone might say, ‘We're bringing a $5 million industry to the Delta!’ Well, that's great. But before we fire up the marching band, maybe someone should ask if this new business puts an existing $500 million industry in jeopardy. That's analogous to what's going on here.”

Mixed feelings

Not all Bootheel farmers are against Ventria moving in. Martin said he's spoken with several producers who have urged a “one-year experiment to see what happens. But that's like playing with a snake hoping not to get bit. If there's even one incident of cross-contamination — like with StarLink corn — what are we going to do then? Maybe we can put all our rice in a pile and have a big, old bonfire.”

Riley said he wants to be clear. “I'm not against research and moving forward with GMO products. But the timing and place is totally incorrect. Things are out of balance when a few acres of this stuff can put the Bootheel's farmers and rice crop — the Mid-South's rice crop, potentially — in harm's way. It's crazy. Why should so many people take the risk for so few to turn a profit?

“Ventria keeps telling farmers, ‘You just need to be educated about pharm-rice's benefits.’ Well, I'm tired of hearing that. Obviously, they're the ones needing education on farmers' rice markets.”


EDITOR'S NOTE: An upcoming story will deal with the issues of potential cross-contamination and environmental impact of pharm-rice in the Bootheel. e-mail: dbennett@primediabusiness.com