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2-Plants: Struggle about GE pharma rice in the USA



                                  PART I
-------------------------------- GENET-news -------------------------------

TITLE:  Letter from Senator Kit Bond to Riceland Foods, Inc
SOURCE: Christopher S. Bond, United States Senator
        posted by AgBioView, USA
DATE:   24 Mar 2005

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Letter from Senator Kit Bond to Riceland Foods, Inc

Mr. Bill J. Reed
Vice President
Corporate Communications and Public Affairs
Riceland Foods, Inc.
P.O. Box 927
Stuttgart, AR 72160

March 24, 2005

Dear Mr. Reed:

While we have had a good relationship and enjoyed working with you and
your members cooperatively and expect fully to continue that
relationship, I am very concerned about the way in which the handling of
the matter related to new transgenic rice may harm agriculture and
undermine our nation's commitment to science and its place in our future.

I am fully aware that you and your members are generally strong
supporters of new technology. In the face of anti-technology and
protectionist opposition to safe new biotechnology, agriculture has stuck
together with the science and regulatory communities committed to the
mandate that our system be science-based - not political - and that
failing that, we jeopardize the future viability of technology and all
its rewards for producers and customers alike - particularly some of the
world's most desperate children. There have been plenty of tempting
excuses to follow the lead of the Luddite officials in Europe, but we
have succeeded in staying the course and we now see signs that in its
growing isolation and indefensible scientific and moral positions, the
European governments are charting a course to accept new technology. One
of the principal objections we recognized previously from European
consumer analysis is that there was "nothing directly in it for
consumers." Remarkably, if determined safe, here we have a second
generation transgenic proposal designed to help save the 1.3 million
young children who die annually from dehydration and diarrhea - 5 times
the death toll of the recent tsunami tragedy.

It is in no one's interest to leave the false impression that there is
something wrong with biotechnology or the regulatory process that governs
it. Farmers will be the biggest victims of any impression that undermines
the confidence in our science-based process. Pity the day when our system
is turned over to politics and we must conduct a referendum on the
approval of all new technologies.

I have worked a great deal, following the lead, first of producers, then
with the scientific and regulatory communities, and of forward-looking
food processors to invest in new technology and protect the integrity of
the science-based regulatory system, which ensures its safety. It has
been our collective goal to make Missouri not a sightseer of this new
technological revolution, but to make us central to this revolution. If
we cannot introduce new technologies and new uses for our farmers (and
consumers) then the future of agriculture will be tied to shrinking
promise and growing subsidies, which are becoming harder to defend.

It is my understanding that in the previous several years, the federal
government has approved over 20 permits allowing the production of
genetically improved rice in the Delta area in which Riceland producers
operate. It is disturbing that when Missouri gets an opportunity to enter
into a new market, some prejudge the scientific findings, subject the
proposal to public criticism arousing controversy and conflict among our
producers, and create media attention that risks arousing fear without a
basis in science.

There is nothing more that the dwindling collection of opponents of
technology could hope for, than to divide U.S. producers on
biotechnology, after failing to peddle junk science and hysteria before
the public, the Congress, the courts, corporate shareholders, the
regulatory authorities, and the media. After 10 years of commercial
experience, we expect to see the billionth acre of biotechnology crops
planted while the naysayers search in vain to identify the first stomach ache.

As I have done always, I adamantly defend the science-based process and
oppose the introduction of politics into it. The decision rendered by the
regulatory process in this case is one that I will honor, yea or nay. But
beyond this singular decision, a great deal more is at stake if we pursue
a course and leave an impression that farmers are not supportive, or that
the French government will dictate our farming practices and
technological pursuits, or that the technology is not safe and our
regulatory system should not be trusted. As we proceed, I recommend
strongly that we not undermine biotechnology, deprive the sick and the
hungry, and surrender our future.

Sincerely,

Christopher S. Bond
United States
Senator

cc:
Governor Matt Blunt
Fred Ferrell, Director of Agriculture
Paul T. Combs


                                  PART II
-------------------------------- GENET-news -------------------------------

TITLE:  Can pharmaceutical rice be contained?
SOURCE: Delta Farm Press, USA, by David Bennett
        http://deltafarmpress.com/mag/
farming_pharmaceutical_rice_contained/index.html
DATE:   25 Mar 2005

------------------- archive: http://www.genet-info.org/ -------------------


Can pharmaceutical rice be contained?

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."


                                  PART III
-------------------------------- GENET-news -------------------------------

TITLE:  Pharm-rice worries Bootheel rice growers
SOURCE: Delta Farm Express, USA, by David Bennett
        http://deltafarmpress.com/news/050322-pharmrice-Ventria/index.html
DATE:   22 Mar 2005

------------------- archive: http://www.genet-info.org/ -------------------


Pharm-rice worries Bootheel rice growers

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 thirty 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.)




--


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