There may be fewer environmentalists to spar with in the Missouri Bootheel, but farmers have proven a formidable substitute. Leaving California for the Show-Me State has yet to yield a grain of pharmaceutical rice for Ventria BioScience. And until the Gordian knot of GM rice and markets is untied, many Missouri rice producers vow to continue fighting the company to protect their businesses.

The latest turn on Ventria’s bumpy ride came in late April when, for lack of time to secure permits, the company announced it wouldn’t be able to plant in the state this year. That came shortly after the company agreed to move away from the Bootheel entirely. Now, Ventria may shift some of its production to the Southeast, where it has already obtained USDA permission to grow acreage in North Carolina.

A review of the last few months shows a whirlwind of Ventria-inspired activity in the Bootheel.

Market worries

In January, news began to circulate in earnest among Bootheel producers that a genetically modified rice — a plant-made pharmaceutical (PMP) — developed by Ventria, would be planted near Chaffee, Mo., on the northern edge of Missouri rice country. The company’s 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 planned to grow 150 acres of its rice with the nearest conventional rice field 7 miles distant. That wasn’t nearly far enough for those opposing the rice. As the FDA has yet to approve any PMP for human consumption, cross-contamination with conventional rice was the most cited fear. But opponents were fearful even the proximity of pharma-rice to conventional could be a problem.

“Perception is reality,” said Sonny Martin, chairman of the Missouri Rice Research and Merchandising Council, in February. “If those buying our rice even perceive a problem, it could be trouble... In the future, if the markets can be convinced otherwise, fine — I might grow pharma-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.”

Risk versus benefit

Ventria, which had just come to Missouri after a similar controversy in California, said Bootheel worries were overblown. In a written response to Delta Farm Press questions, Scott Deeter, Ventria CEO, explained the benefits of pharma-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.”

David Herbst, the farmer who planned to grow Ventria’s rice, said fellow farmers should consider the value-added benefits of biotech projects, at least on a small scale. “China is doing work with GM rice. It’s coming, there’s no doubt. What we must decide is whether we want to take advantage of GM rice. We can pass this up and watch a lot of other folks take advantage of the technology. If this opportunity passes, though, I can almost promise you we won’t have another come around for a long while.”

But market concerns remained the driving concern for most producers.

“If Ventria wants to help people, it’s noble,” said Martin, who, besides milling, annually farms between 700 and 1,200 acres of rice. “I would never knock that. But how big their heart is isn’t what we’re worried about. Our focus is on the 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 pharma-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 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.”

Environmentalists weigh in

The fight against Ventria’s PMPs resulted in several odd alliances, none stranger than that of Bootheel producers and Friends of the Earth (FOE).

In March, Bill Freese — a research analyst with FOE who has written two comprehensive papers regarding Ventria’s pharma-rice — said the company had “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 interest of FOE in the issue wasn’t coincidental. Freese said the organization’s “Safer Foods, Safer Farms” campaign “focuses on our desire for mandatory testing and labeling. We also want bio-tech companies to bear liability when things go wrong, which isn’t the case right now.”

As of mid-March, Freese believed there was a “good chance Ventria’s efforts in the Bootheel can be shut down. 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.”

April hits hard

Freese’s words proved prophetic because on April 7 Anheuser-Busch executives met with Missouri Department of Agriculture officials in St. Louis where a “no buy” warning was given. The boycott threat hit hard because Busch is the largest domestic rice purchaser.

“The Busch folks asked the Missouri Agriculture Department director to explain where the state was on this issue,” said Paul Combs, a Bootheel farmer who sits on the USA Rice Federation’s board of directors and attended the meeting. “In the end, he said the state would give Ventria permission to plant its rice and the state is supportive of the PMP industry and concept.”

At that point, said Combs, Busch executives admitted transgenic crops are here to stay and the company isn’t opposed to the health benefits such crops could provide.

“But then they hit on their big point: this PMP isn’t regarded as safe for the food industry. They drew a distinction between herbicide-tolerant crops and PMPs. Busch’s senior executive said, ‘We aren’t trying to tell the state what to do. But if Ventria goes forward, we won’t purchase any rice either grown or processed in the state of Missouri.’ He said because it’s not regarded as safe, Busch would have to recall products if this PMP rice accidentally found its way (into food grade). He made it clear it would cost the company big in terms of money and brand image.”

Compromise and revenge

A week later on April 15, Ventria announced it would move its pharmaceutical rice 120 miles from the nearest Bootheel rice field. As a result, Busch officials’ concerns were alleviated. The beer giant agreed to continue purchasing rice grown and processed in Missouri.

On news of Ventria’s move away from the Bootheel’s $95 million rice crop, Missouri Gov. Matt Blunt said, “I am pleased that Anheuser-Busch and Ventria have reached a fair compromise that furthers cutting-edge life-sciences technology while protecting current markets for Missouri rice farmers. Biotech companies from around the country, if not the world, are watching our state today, and this agreement sends a clear message that Missouri is a great place for technology.”

While that may be true, Ventria won’t be growing any pharmaceutical rice in the state this year. The company’s rice is a 155-day variety and, as a result, needed permits to plant in a new Missouri location would have come too late in the season.

On hearing of the company’s move from the Bootheel, “farmers were very much relieved,” said Martin, who remains aggrieved by how producers have been treated by some state politicians.

“We’re thankful to Busch because it stood up and tipped this thing,” he said in early May. “But what this really showed us is the Bootheel producers won’t be listened to. That’s it — (our leaders) just don’t care. We told (our leaders) and told them and told them we didn’t want Ventria here, that the market wouldn’t want them either. And plans went right on moving along. Their decision wasn’t based on what the producers wanted. The decision to move out of the Bootheel, in the end, was based on what an end user, Busch, wanted. Well, mark my words: the Bootheel will get its revenge come next election. And you can print that.”

e-mail: dbennett@primediabusiness.com