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2-Plants: U.S. Department of Agriculture approves 270 acres of GE pharma trials

-------------------------------- GENET-news -------------------------------

TITLE:  USDA Approves Applications to Grow Rice With Human Genes on 270
        Acres in North Carolina, Missouri
SOURCE: Center for Food Safety, USA
DATE:   30 Jun 2005

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USDA Approves Applications to Grow Rice With Human Genes on 270 Acres in
North Carolina, Missouri

WASHINGTON - The U.S. Department of Agriculture has quietly approved
controversial proposals by genetic engineering firm Ventria Biosciences
to grow rice containing human genes on 270 acres in North Carolina and
Missouri. The rice is engineered to produce two pharmaceutical compounds,
lactoferrin and lysozyme, derived from human genes. When grown in rice,
the compounds present unresolved toxicity and allergenic risks and have
not yet received approval from the Food and Drug Administration.

"With this approval, USDA has signaled that it thinks it's okay to grow
drug-producing crops near food crops of the same type, despite the threat
of contamination," said Doug Gurian-Sherman, senior scientist at Center
for Food Safety. "There have already been numerous examples of
contamination of food crops by biotech crops, including pharmaceutical
crops. Over time, such contamination of our food is virtually inevitable
under the conditions allowed by USDA."

USDA granted permits for North Carolina field tests totaling 70 acres, in
Washington County near the town of Plymouth. The North Carolina field
test approvals come over objections from numerous stakeholders, including
environmental and consumer groups, as well as the Food Products
Association. Public comments ran 320 to 1 against approval of the North
Carolina site. Opposition came from scientists who work at or with the
state- and federally-operated Rice Quarantine Nursery at the Tidewater
Research Station, which sits just over half a mile from the Ventria test
site. The researchers are concerned about contamination of unique
varieties of rice grown at the facility in a nursery that protects
foundation stocks of new varieties. According to USDA scientist Dr. David
Marshall, who is based at North Carolina State University:

"[T]he potential exists for stray rice pollen to be carried via air
currents from the Ventria Bioscience fields to the Nursery and
pollinating the introduced germplasm. If this were to occur, genes from
the rice expressing human lactoferrin could be introduced into the rice
germplasm of the National Plant Germplasm System, and thus be
disseminated throughout the U.S."

In comments on the proposal, Karen A.K. Moldenhauer, Chair of the Rice
Crop Germplasm Committee (CGC) and Professor at the University of
Arkansas, said: "[The Rice CGC] is concerned about the perception of a
grow out this close to the quarantine nursery and hope that they consider
moving this grow out to a location farther away (at least 15 miles) from
the Tidewater Research Station of NCDA & CS at Plymouth, NC."

USDA also cleared the way for Ventria to grow its biopharm rice on 200
acres in the middle of Missouri's chief rice-growing region, despite
Ventria's having already withdrawn its permit applications for that site.
Anheuser-Busch, the nation's largest brewer, had indicated that it would
refuse to buy any rice from southeastern Missouri's hundreds of rice
growers if the Ventria biopharm rice was planted there. Anheuser-Busch
publicly indicated it feared contamination of its rice-based beers with
Ventria's biopharm compounds.

In its response to comments on the Ventria proposal, USDA dismissed the
concerns of rice purchasers like Anheuser-Busch as "non-scientific" and
beyond its legal purview. "If USDA is not gong to protect the U.S. food
industry, who will?" said Dr. Margaret Mellon of the Union of Concerned

In a related story, the North Carolina legislature is considering
"preemption" bills intended to block local regulation of crop plantings,
including biotech crops. The bills, House Bill 671 and Senate Bill 631,
were sponsored by the biotech industry and are part of a nationwide
industry effort to preempt local governments from regulating any crops, (see:
). Similar bills designed to thwart local control of food crops have
become law in at least 10 other states this year. Amendments to the two
bills are being considered in the Senate, including a potential study
bill to assess alternative approaches that would allow for some local
government control.

"I have major questions about the wisdom of planting this rice near an
important North Carolina asset, the Tidewater Research Station," said
State Senator Janet Cowell (D-Wake County) and the leader of the
opposition to the current bills. "This is particularly true because of
the Confidential Business Information claims about the precise location
of Ventria's proposal."

 Public comments on the Ventria rice proposals can be viewed at:

For more information on the local regulation preemption bills, including
backgrounders on the legal and policy issues, see

Dr. Margaret Mellon, Union of Concerned Scientists, (202) 331-5432;
Craig Culp, Center for Food Safety, (202) 547-9359;
Bill Freese, Friends of the Earth, (301) 985-3011.


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