Group wants to block pharma rice farm (25/7/2007)

Group wants to block Geary County rice farm
Activists believe drug crops could contaminate food supply
By Sarah Green KHI News Service, July 22 2007

A national environmental group has asked the Kansas Department of Agriculture to block a water permit requested by a California-based company to grow genetically engineered rice for pharmaceuticals near Junction City.

The Center for Food Safety, a nonprofit public interest and environmental advocacy organization, asked the department to deny water-use permits to Ventria Biosciences because of concerns the rice crop could contaminate food supplies. The organization was established by the International Center for Technology Assessment to "challenge harmful food production technologies and promote sustainable alternatives," according to the letter.

"Growing drugs in foods undermines confidence in the integrity of the U.S. food supply, and in the 'coordinated framework' for regulation of agricultural biotechnology products," the letter said.

Ventria has applied for a "term" water-use permit, which if issued would be valid until the end of 2007, said Lisa Taylor, spokeswoman for the Kansas Department of Agriculture.

The agency's Division of Water Resources will look at the potential water use of the crop — not necessarily the crop itself — to determine whether to issue the permit to the company, Taylor said.

"The question is, how much water does the crop need to grow in Kansas?" she said. "We don't have a history for growing much rice in Kansas, so we don't have that information. This is a proving ground for the crop in Kansas in terms of learning how much water it will take to grow it."

Ventria already has water rights, Taylor said, but seeks the term permit because the rice crop could require more water. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the rice already has been planted.

In May, the USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service approved Ventria's application to grow the genetically engineered rice in Geary County. Under the permit, the company also must have an emergency management plan, specific testing procedures for the rice lines and have their records audited by the federal Biotechnology Regulatory Services.

"APHIS has determined that the proposed action will not have a significant impact, either individually or cumulatively, on the quality of the human environment and that no Environmental Impact Statement will be prepared regarding this decision," according to the permit approval document.

According to the document, 29 people wrote to support the venture. About 1,000 individuals and rice industry representatives wrote to ask that the company's application be denied. The government also received 18,910 "nearly identical form letters" collected by two public interest groups from individuals generally opposed to growing food crops producing pharmaceutical or industrial compounds.

Those in favor of the proposed rice farm included two farm industry organizations, nine physicians or other scientific professionals, Kansas Secretary of Agriculture Adrian Polansky, the mayor of Junction City, and representatives from Kansas State University and The University of Kansas School of Medicine.

Ventria, which is based in Sacramento, Calif., didn’t respond to KHI News Services' requests for comment.

Scott Deeter, the company's president and chief executive officer, earned a bachelor's degree in economics from KU and has worked for Cargill and Koch Industries, according to his biography on the company's web site, www.ventria.com.

The rice the company proposes to grow in Geary County would contain two proteins, lactoferrin and lysozyme, which are found in human breast milk and "epithelial surface secretions," such as tears and saliva, according to the company's web site, www.ventria.com

"Proteins extracted from the rice will be incorporated into oral rehydration solutions to address childhood diarrhea," according to the site. "Ventria is also developing other products using these proteins. The rice itself is then discarded."

Kansas food producers are concerned about the crop being introduced here, said Dan Nagengast, executive director of the Kansas Rural Center.

"It's sometimes perceived from Kansans as 'here's something that's going to help so why are people against it?'" he said. "From a larger perspective, there are a lot of people against it. There's a distrust of the agriculture Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service’s ability to ensure that drug-bearing rice doesn’t get out in the food stream, which has happened in multiple occasions where there has been contamination."

Traditional food crops are starting to be used as vehicles to produce other substances, such as pharmaceuticals, because scientists understand the genomics of those crops, Nagengast said.

"Does it make sense to put something nonedible into a food crop?" he said. "If they can use this in any plant, why don't they use something they can control in a lab?"

The Center for Food Safety says the lactoferrin found in the genetically engineered rice is harmful to humans.

"The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has not approved the pharmaceuticals Ventria is growing for human consumption," according to the letter.

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