Colusa County, April 9, 2004 -- CropChoice news -- San
Francisco Chronicle, 04/08/04: Joe Carrancho
isn't particularly fond of environmentalists or their
rules that he feels have made it harder for him to be
a rice farmer over the past 40 years. He's a duck-hunting,
self-made immigrant with a photo of President Bush by
his desk, and he wants to be left alone to farm.
But with a Sacramento biotechnology company proposing
to plant the nation's first commercial crop that's genetically
engineered to produce a medicine, Carrancho and others
like him in the Davis-to-Chico rice belt are standing
with the environmentalists.
The 61-year-old with the catcher's-mitt hands worries
that if California becomes the latest battleground in
the nation's war over genetically modified organisms,
the only loser will be the state's $500 million rice
To farmers who live at the mercy of nature and the
world markets, the problem with genetically engineered
rice has less to do with its science and more with its
public perception. And if a batch of conventional rice
is found to contain the genetically engineered variety
by mistake, some foreign markets could shun California
Carrancho said he and environmentalists "may be
apart on some issues, but on this one we're together."
California exports 40 percent of its rice to Japan,
which has among the world's strictest policies regarding
genetically engineered food. And even though the rice
grown by the Sacramento company, Ventria Bioscience,
would be required to be planted far from California's
rice belt, milled in separate facilities and trucked
in separate vehicles, Carrancho doesn't want to take
the risk that that all those regulations will be lost
"If the Japanese have the perception -- underline
perception -- that our rice has (genetically modified
organisms) in it, then we're done," said Carrancho,
a past president of the Rice Producers of California.
"You can put a bullet in our head."
Ventria Bioscience wants to grow a rice plant with
a seed that contains human proteins usually found in
breast milk and tears; the company has been testing
the product in small plots for several years. The proteins
developed in the seed of a rice plant could be used
to create a medicine used to combat anemia and diarrhea,
among the world's leading causes of death for children
Because plants can replicate the proteins 30 times
cheaper than traditional laboratory methods, Ventria
officials contend that genetically engineered rice could
go a long way toward creating affordable medicines to
combat the worldwide health problem.
Last week, a California Rice Commission advisory panel
narrowly approved a protocol for growing what's been
dubbed "pharm rice" in 10 Southern California
counties from San Luis Obispo to San Diego. California's
secretary of agriculture has until May 1 to approve
an emergency request by Ventria Bioscience to plant
the rice in time for this year.
A state Agricultural Department spokesman said the
agency could make a decision within days, but the company
still must receive federal approval before proceeding.
While farmers in Northern California's rice belt will
begin planting in the next few weeks, seeding can begin
as late as this summer in the warmer southern regions.
But passions around genetically engineered rice are
boiling. Sitting in the office near his farm this week,
Carrancho read aloud parts of the protocol that were
developed over the past year. He shook his head.
"This is probably the most stringent protocol
I've ever seen," he conceded. "And it's not
The worst-case scenario, for Carrancho and the rest
of the state's 2,200 rice farmers, is that Japan goes
elsewhere for its rice imports.
On Wednesday, Tsutomu Matsumoto, Japan's consul in
the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries, and Forestry,
told The Chronicle in a written statement: "Concerning
California's (genetically engineered) rice production
issue, Japanese consumers have a serious concern in
regards to food safety. For this reason, Japanese rice
retailers' association and consumer groups plan to submit
a public comment to the California Department of Food
and Agriculture" within a few days.
Rice farmers such as Greg Massa, a Colusa County grower
who has a master's degree in biology, doesn't believe
there's a legitimate scientific reason for the rush
to approve the genetically engineered crop. He's not
opposed to such rice just because of the public perception;
he's worried about the science of growing pharmaceutical
products in farm crops.
"Why not take more time to examine this?"
Massa said, "because there is absolutely no benefit
to anyone to rush into this."
But some California farmers don't have a big problem
with genetically engineered rice. Charley Matthews,
a third-generation rice farmer around Yuba City, initially
was wary of the proposal when he reviewed it as a member
of the Rice Commission's advisory panel.
"What changed my mind was that it would be grown
hundreds of miles away," Matthews said. If the
proposal is approved, he said, "you will get a
market reaction. Now, we just have to explain it to
all of our customers."
And to a lot of farmers, too. Ronald Lee, president
of the Rice Producers of California, wants to hold town
meetings so more farmers can learn about the issue,
especially since two other companies are readying proposals
to bring genetically engineered rice to California,
perhaps by next year.
"There's a learning curve here for producers,"
said Lee, who farms in Colusa County. "Some have
some knowledge. Some have very little. We're entering
new territory here."
Much of the scientific questions differ over how easily
the genetically engineered seed could be spread -- and
possibly contaminate non-genetically engineered rice.
Rice is a self-pollinating plant, so its seed is less
likely to be spread as widely as say, corn.
Ventria officials said such "outcrossing"
wouldn't happen over more than 30 feet. Opponents point
to studies that say contamination from other genetically
engineered crops is already widespread.
The dispute is causing some to wonder why Ventria is
asking for an emergency status on its proposal. The
company did not respond to requests for an interview.
"What is the emergency that this has to be done
immediately?" asked Jane Rissler, a senior staff
scientist and deputy director of the Food and Environment
Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists in Washington,
She wants to see several "third-party" scientists
examine the proposal instead of those on the Rice Commission
advisory board. "This is too important, too precedent-setting,
to rush through without more public input," she
Ventria Bioscience officials have said previously that
the months that the Rice Commission panel, composed
of farmers, academics and industry representatives,
spent in developing the protocol provided ample public
"There has been an exhaustive process to keep
the two kinds of rice separate," said Ann Schmidt,
a spokeswoman for the California Rice Commission.