America’s drug producing GM rice should be blocked (3/4/2004)

Last week a sharply divided California rice industry voted 6-5 to approve the nation's first commercial-scale planting of a crop genetically engineered to produce drug compounds - Ventria Bioscience's GM rice containing human proteins for use in the treatment of diarrhoea.

Apparently, all 5 of the "no" votes came from handlers and growers, while of the 6 "yes" votes 4 came from scientists and two from The Farmers Rice Cooperative (the largest handler). It is reported that FRC are experiencing a sizeable backlash, while there is speculation that some of the scientists may have plant breeding connections to relevant commercial interests or to those involved in trialing GM varieties.

Below Suman Sahai (item 1) warns from an Indian perspective that this decision has global implications. She points out that the US is the second largest exporter of rice in the world and California is the US's principle rice-growing region. A Californian paper reports (item 2) on the growing campaign of local opposition, while a press release from the Organic Trade Association (item 3) points out the extent of the failure to contain GMOs and declares America's GM food system "out of control".

Because the industry panel which approved the GM pharma rice called Ventria's proposal an emergency measure in deference to Ventria's spring planting schedule, there will be only limited public comment before a final decision is made. The California Department of Food and Agriculture has been given just 10 days to approve or reject the proposal. http://www.lobbywatch.org/archive2.asp?arcid=3126


Please send an ACTION ALERT e-mail to both the California Secretary of Food and Agriculture A.G. Kawamura and Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger opposing the approval. Here is a link to this ACTION ALERT: http://www.thecampaign.org/alert_calif.php

2.Opponents press case against modified rice
3.GM Crop Contamination - OTA

Suman Sahai

The news that a California based Biotechnology Company is starting to plant two rice varieties genetically modified to produce drugs for diarrhea, should set alarm bells ringing in rice growing regions of the world, particularly those like India, which are also centers of origin. A center of origin is the region from where a particular crop originated a few thousand years ago when indigenous communities developed edible crops from the wild plants found in the forest. The wild relatives and therefore the maximum diversity of crops is found in their centers of origin.

The cause for alarm at the planting of a drug producing rice in far away California is the near certain likelihood of contamination of natural rice gene pools by the genetically engineered ones. The American company Ventria Bioscience has produced GM varieties of rice in Sacramento that are engineered to produce two compounds called lactoferrin and lysozyme that are be used as drugs to treat diarrhea.  The plan is to extract these compounds from the GM rice since that would be much cheaper than setting up a factory. As with many other industrial products, the question is ‘cheaper’ for whom? The Ventria GM rice poses a serious hazard to rice growing regions because as we have seen in the past, crops produced in one region easily land up in other regions through the channels of trade or because people just carry the produce to another country.

The American Starlink corn, which is a GM corn carrying a Bt gene was not approved for use as human food since it had an allergy producing tendency. Starlink corn was however approved by the US department of Agriculture for use as animal feed. To no one’s surprise, Starlink corn was found mixed up in food articles in Japan! The reason is simple and therefore worrying. It is very difficult, if not impossible, to segregate two versions of the same product in real life. One can make complex segregation plans on paper, as Ventria is undoubtedly doing but the likelihood of mix-ups is high because field operations over hundreds of hectare are not like the tightly controlled conditions of laboratories. Contamination of one type of crop produce with another is almost certain. And if American corn could land up in Japan, what is to prevent American rice landing up in India, especially when California is a large exporter of rice.

Another contamination episode with corn should teach us a lesson about centers of origin.

Whether through international trade or through human traffic, GM corn has landed up in Mexico, and contaminated the natural gene pool of corn there. Mexico, which is a center of origin for corn, has had a ban on the planting of GM corn since 1998, yet GM corn found its way there and has crossed with Mexican corn. The contamination is assumed to have come from two sources, one, from American exports of corn to Mexico and two, from Mexicans bringing in American seeds for planting. The fact of the corn contamination has caused great distress in Mexico where corn is not just the staple food but also plays a central role in the cultural heritage of the local people, like rice does for us. Mexico moved to take strong action after the contamination was detected and has banned even research on GM corn, to cut down all sources of contamination. It is however proving to be difficult to contain the situation since corn exports to Mexico are not being stopped due to American pressure.

In the case of the Ventria drug rice, US rice exports (the US is the second largest exporter of rice in the world and California is the principle rice-growing region in the US) will ensure that it is carried to other countries. A contamination scenario similar to the Mexican corn case would be a highly likely event in rice growing countries and centers of origin, with consequences that cannot be predicted. At the very least, the pharmaceutical rice could end up in the food chain and people could end up eating rice with diarrhea drugs in it.

The issue of genetic contamination, in the natural gene pools of rice is a serious one for centers of diversity like India. Rice is the staple food of over half the world's population. For about two billion people in Asia alone, rice and rice products are the main source of food. Recognizing the centrality of rice to global food security, the UN has declared 2004 as the International Year of Rice. This is meant to focus on the threats facing rice production across the world and to develop a strategy for ensuring that sufficient rice is produced for the growing world population. The threat of genetic contamination from alien genes like those producing diarrhea drugs is the last thing that stagnating rice productivity needs. Since so little is known about the long term consequences of foreign genes moving into crop species, and almost nothing is known in the case of rice, it would be foolhardy and dangerous to take a risk with a crop that feeds over half the world.

The UN must protest America's diarrhea drug rice

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