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Feelings mixed on growth of GM rice

Monday, February 14, 2005

SIKESTON -- Plans to grow genetically modified rice in Southeast Missouri to improve worldwide health issues have created mixed feelings among area farmers.

Last December Ventria Bioscience, a biopharmaceutical company based in Sacramento, Calif., submitted permit applications to the USDA to grow about 200 acres of rice "engineered with human genes" in Scott, Mississippi and Cape Girardeau counties this year.

Sonny Martin, chairman of the Missouri Rice Research and Merchandising Council, said there's plenty of reasons for rice producers to be concerned. "It's contaminating for our rice," said Martin of Bernie. "We have zero tolerance (for genetically modified rice) and it's not allowed in any of our food-grade rice and that would get into the safety aspect of the food," Martin said.

Martin said he's worried there will be a similar incident like that of the 2000 Star Link corn. In 2000 StarLink corn, which was only approved to be used as animal feed, was found in taco shells and caused a nationwide recall of many yellow corn products.

Last year seven counties in Southeast Missouri produced 99 percent of the state's rice. They were Stoddard, Butler, Dunklin, New Madrid, Pemiscot, Ripley and Scott.

"The presumption that people hear about is (GM rice) being grown in Missouri will hurt our market like the Star Link corn," Martin said.

But Chaffee farmer David Herbst said Ventria's project is a completely different issue than Star Link.

This is not a pharmaceutical crop, and Star Link didn't operate under a USDA mandate, Herbst said. Unlike the Star Link case, Ventria does not sell seed to growers, he said.

Herbst said this particular rice has an extremely weak seed coat that lacks the ability of dormancy in normal environmental conditions. In addition, several studies have confirmed the rice is highly digestible by birds and when consumed, the rice is digested quickly and destroyed before excreted.

"There are a lot of farmers who are in favor of this, and there are also a lot folks who are opposed to it," Herbst said.

Herbst said Martin's and other farmers' concerns are valid, but thinks education about the process is needed.

Ventria is a product development company that has grown rice, which is genetically engineered to produce proteins found in saliva, tears and mother's milk, for six consecutive years in the state of California, Herbst said.

A closed production system regulated under permits issued by the USDA was used to grow the rice, Herbst said, adding there were no infractions during those years.

Ventria's proteins have the potential to address health issues such as severe dehydrations due to diarrhea which kills approximately 1.3 million children under age 5 every year worldwide, Herbst said.

"This death toll is the equivalent of five tsunamis that occurred in December last year," Herbst said. "This is just one of many potential human health products that Ventria is developing. Without this type of technology to produce these proteins in rice, these products not be economically feasible for the global community."

Northwest Missouri State University, the Missouri Department of Agriculture, Danforth Plant Science Center as well as the University of Missouri Extension Services played a key role in bringing the opportunity to the growers in the state, Herbst said.

The rice will be grown in north Scott County on Herbst's land and beyond a fallow area, the surrounding crops are corn, soybeans and wheat. At a minimum, Ventria's production will be more than four miles away from any other rice grown in the area.

Ventria's rice will be planted, harvested, handled and stored with equipment solely dedicated to Ventria's rice as well as processed at the same farm where the rice will be grown, Herbst said.

"Basically we're trying to bring options like value-added products in Missouri and into the Bootheel," Herbst said.

State Rep. Peter Myers said currently there are no plans for legislation on the issue, but he does not want to shut off a new opportunity for farmers.

"I raise rice on my farm and certainly I don't want to threaten the markets, and I am concerned," Myers said. "I think there's two sides to the issue and we need to come together."

Martin said he wants what's best for everyone and hopes farmers in favor of the project aren't in it just for money.

"The position I'm holding is looking at the whole rice industry and the producers, and it's just something we'd like to kind of stay out of Missouri," Martin said.

But Herbst said the state's decision about participating in biotechnology with rice is coming. He said he thinks this is just another crossroad like it was with Roundup Ready soybeans and insect resistant corn and cotton.

Herbst said: "We should not sit idly by and watch our competitiveness in agriculture slip away as countries like China, Vietnam, Japan and others adopt biotechnology and capture the benefits in terms of global market share from a technology that was developed right here in the United States and is so important to Missouri's economy."