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[SANET-MG] can pharm rice rescue the farm belt?
Ask a dumb question?
August 16, 2005 ny times
Can Gene-Altered Rice Rescue the Farm Belt?
By ALEXEI BARRIONUEVO
WATSON, Mo. - Like an expectant father, Jason Garst stood in calf-deep
water and studied the three-foot-high rice plants growing in a flooded
It was a curious sight in northwest Missouri, where the growing season
is considered to be too short for rice. Mr. Garst, a sixth-generation
farmer, is hoping at least one of the 12 varieties on his test plot will
sprout this fall. If one does, he will start growing rice plants that
have been genetically engineered to produce proteins found in human
milk, saliva and tears. Once converted into a powder form, those
proteins would be used in granola bars and drinks to help infants in
developing countries avoid death from diarrhea.
"I know in my heart that this will be better than anything else we are
doing," said Mr. Garst, 35, who also farms soybeans and potatoes.
The rice project is backed by a private company called Ventria
Bioscience but also has the support of the state and a local university,
which are hoping to reverse the long decline in the area's farm economy.
But the project has run into opposition from environmental groups and
even the beer giant Anheuser-Busch amid fears about the health effects
of genetically engineered crops, making Mr. Garst's little rice paddy a
piece of a larger battlefield.
The economic and academic ambitions of the Missouri project make it
unique, but the arguments echo those heard in similar disputes in Europe
and, increasingly, in the United States. Critics of Ventria's plans are
concerned that the gene-altered rice could contaminate regular rice
crops and pose a health risk to consumers, scaring off buyers. Ventria
and its academic partner in the project, Northwest Missouri State
University, say they can control the potential for contamination. And
they say the risks are minimal when balanced against the potential for
the special rice to help cut the costs of drugs and save lives.
The debate has a certain urgency in the Farm Belt because it highlights
the challenge facing much of the region's economy: finding new products
that will reduce farmers' reliance on commodity crops. As equipment has
become more efficient and foreign competition has stiffened, farms have
consolidated and profit margins have shrunk, forcing farmers to plant
ever more acres to squeeze out a living. The genetic engineering work
that Ventria and other companies are doing can add value to products
like rice, offering farmers a more stable income that does not rely on
steep government subsidies.
"There is no question that this represents a chance to transform the
economy of the region," said Mark Drabenstott, director of the Center
for the Study of Rural America at the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas
City. "For regions like northwest Missouri, there is not a long list of
Despite opposition, Ventria's plans to grow genetically engineered rice
- eventually to commercial scale - are going forward. The company began
growing rice in North Carolina this summer after getting approval from
the Agriculture Department. Once Ventria decides where it will grow rice
in Missouri, it will have to apply for a permit from the department, a
process expected to take two to three months.
Dean L. Hubbard, president of Northwest Missouri State, persuaded
Ventria last year to move its operations from Sacramento to new
buildings planned for the Northwest campus in Maryville, about 90 miles
north of Kansas City.
Seeking a way to reverse the area's slide in population, Dr. Hubbard
teamed up with Melvin D. Booth, a Northwest Missouri alumnus who
previously ran two large biotechnology companies. The two approached
Ventria about making it part of the university's plan to form joint
ventures with young biopharmaceutical companies.
Ventria was already considering similar offers from universities in
Georgia, Louisiana and North Carolina, but Scott E. Deeter, Ventria's
chief executive, agreed to visit the university last August. Mr. Deeter
said that on the ride from the Kansas City airport, he was intrigued
when Dr. Hubbard described the university's program to heat and cool the
campus using bio-fuel derived from paper and wood chips.
At the meeting, Mr. Garst presented him with a research paper he had
prepared on what it would take to grow rice in northern Missouri. "It
was very impressive," said Ning Huang, Ventria's vice president for
research and development, who was there.
Finally it came down to whether Ventria scientists would agree to move
to Maryville, population 10,000, from California. Next year 13 will
move, including Dr. Huang.
Under the agreement reached last November, Ventria will pay farmers more
than double what they make on their most profitable crop, and pay
Northwest Missouri $500 an acre for crops grown on university land. The
university is spending about $10 million to help build a production and
teaching complex, and the state is kicking in another $10 million.
Atchison County, Mo., where Mr. Garst's farmland is, has lost more than
1,000 people, or 14 percent of its population, since 1990. The town of
Watson, once a thriving rural hub with three grocery stores and an opera
house, has just over 100 people and no place to buy a soda. Most
buildings have been boarded up.
"To reverse the population slide, you have to make it profitable to
farm," Dr. Hubbard said. "My dream is that 10 years from now, this rural
economy has been transformed, that it is vibrant again and people are
renovating their downtowns."
The fate of Mr. Garst's experimental rice plot has loomed larger since
Ventria encountered resistance to planting its rice in the southern part
of the state, where rice has traditionally been grown.
When the company was considering Missouri as a place to grow its rice,
it talked to Anheuser-Busch, which uses Missouri rice in its beer. Mr.
Deeter said Anheuser-Busch initially did not raise any opposition to the
project. But when Ventria tried to plant rice in southern Missouri this
spring, the beer maker threatened not to buy any rice grown in the
state. The company feared a consumer backlash if people thought
gene-altered rice could end up in their bottles of Bud.
For Missouri's farm economy, the risk of growing pharmaceutical rice is
high. More than half of Missouri's rice is sent abroad, to the European
Union and Caribbean countries that are especially sensitive about
genetically modified products.
"We are still having to make statements to our customers that the rice
we export is not genetically modified," said Carl Brothers, the vice
president for marketing at Riceland Foods, which markets more than half
of Missouri's rice. "We are concerned longer term that if Ventria and
others get involved that will get harder to say."
The two companies reached a truce in April: Ventria agreed not to grow
genetically modified rice within 120 miles of commercial rice crops. "We
can continue to purchase rice grown and processed in Missouri as long as
Ventria's growing areas remain sufficiently far from commercial rice
production," said Francine Katz, a spokeswoman for Anheuser-Busch.
That deal suddenly made four test plots in the northern part of the
state, including Mr. Garst's, all the more important, since Ventria's
agreement with Northwest Missouri State calls for the company to grow 70
percent of its rice in the state.
To prove to its customers that it would have a diverse supply base,
Ventria must grow in at least one other location in North America, and
is also searching for a growing area in the Southern Hemisphere to be
able to produce year-round. In June, Ventria planted 70 acres of
genetically modified rice in North Carolina. There, environmentalists
continue to attack the company, saying the rice poses a threat to other
crops and the human food chain.
Ventria's rice fields are just a few miles from a rice-seed-screening
research center and are also close to two wildlife refuges with large
populations of migrant birds and swans that environmentalists contend
could transport Ventria's rice seeds into wild areas. Storms and floods,
environmentalists say, could also lead to rice contamination.
"Just washing away in a big rain- storm is enough," said Margaret
Mellon, director of the food and environment program at the Union of
Concerned Scientists in Washington. Scientists at Ventria, which is yet
to make any money from its bio-rice, say rice is among the safest crops
for genetic engineering. Rice stalks pollinate themselves, so the
altered genes, which are synthetic versions of human genes, cannot be
easily transferred to plants in other fields. And Ventria requires
farmers to employ a "closed system," using dedicated equipment and a
production process where the seed is ground into a powder before it
leaves the farm.
But critics say that there is no way to guarantee that the farmers will
follow all the government regulations and Ventria's rules, and that they
are worried about the risk of contamination because it would be hard to
detect. "We simply wouldn't know if a contamination event took place,"
said Craig Culp, a spokesman for the Center for Food Safety, in Washington.
Dr. Hubbard acknowledged that there are risks, but he said he believed
that they were minimal.
Federal regulations have been tested before, most notably in 2002, when
drug-producing corn made by ProdiGene began sprouting in soybean fields
near its Iowa and Nebraska sites. The Agriculture Department seized
500,000 bushels of soybeans and assessed the company nearly $3 million
in fines and disposal costs. Earlier, in 2000, a gene-altered variety of
corn that was approved for animal feed but not for human consumption was
found in taco shells and other grocery items, prompting recalls.
Mr. Garst is a modern breed of farmer with a master's degree and a
healthy interest in science. And he himself has done whatever he can to
wring more from his commodity crops, even trying out a $300,000 tractor
that steers automatically using a global-positioning satellite to till
"Obviously, you will not see pharmaceutical crops from here to Kansas
City," he said of Ventria's project. "But there will be pockets in this
area where you will see development. If you keep two more farmers in
this area it is huge - there are four of us now."
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