April 26, 2005, Scott Moyers for the Southeast Missourian via CropChoice.com:
With the rice-growing season several weeks
old, a biotech firm wanting to plant Missouri's first-ever
genetically modified rice crop indicated Monday that
last-minute setbacks make producing a crop this year
"We haven't given up, but it's going to be pretty
tough," Ventria Biosciences president Scott Deeter
said. "We're still working whatever angles we can
to make it work in Missouri, but we're business people.
We're developing alternatives as we speak." Ventria
is looking at backup plans such as getting pharmaceutical
rice crops started in North Carolina, where it already
has permits, and supplementing those crops in South
American fields later this year.
"We're definitely going to have some production
this year, whether or not it's in Missouri," he
Deeter says Ventria has set a deadline of May 20 to
see if it can clear governmental hurdles in Missouri
created when it agreed to abandon its original plan
of growing 150 acres of so-called pharmaceutical crops
-- those that contain human medicines -- in Chaffee.
The company agreed earlier this month to find another
site that would be at least 120 miles from Southeast
Missouri rice country, where rice is grown for human
consumption. That change was in response to pressure
from local farmers and to beer giant Anheuser-Busch's
threat to discontinue buying Missouri rice. Both feared
the genetically modified rice would contaminate rice
grown for human consumption and damage their markets.
Based on that agreement, Anheuser-Busch backed off from
its boycott and eased the minds of some rice farmers
in the Bootheel. Anheuser-Busch is one of the country's
largest buyers of rice, which is a starch component
of its beers.
Another concern for farmers was how Riceland, the world's
largest rice miller and biggest buyer of Missouri rice,
would react to the agreement. Riceland spokesman Bill
Reed said the agreement addresses the company's major
That leaves Ventria searching for another spot in Missouri
to grow rice and for permission from the U.S. Department
of Agriculture to grow it there. While Deeter said the
California company has a few unnamed spots in Missouri
in mind, the process is unlikely to be completed in
time to meet the company's deadline.
That dims the hopes of some, including Gov. Matt Blunt,
that the Ventria project would enable Missouri to become
a big-time player in the pharmaceutical crop industry.
Ventria says its genetically modified rice could be
engineered to produce proteins that could address health
issues like severe dehydration due to diarrhea, which
kills more than 1.3 million children under the age of
5 every year across the globe.
Blunt has asked the USDA to expedite the permitting
process, but USDA spokeswoman Karen Eggert said the
department is waiting to hear whether Ventria wants
to amend its current permit or apply for an entirely
Either way, she said, a new environmental assessment
would have to be done at a new site involving government
scientists studying the area to make sure the project
would not pose risks to other crops or people. She said
the assessment includes a 30-day period of public comment.
The process takes anywhere from a month to seven months,
Even if Ventria does get the permits it needs and does
find a spot in a different area of the state, some experts
and farmers say Ventria may still have problems because
some parts of the state aren't conducive to rice growing.
Gerald Bryan, an agronomy specialist with the University
of Missouri Extension office in Jackson, said rice has
been grown in the Hannibal, Mo., area in the past. But
he said Southeast Missouri has ideal conditions for
growing rice because of its ample water supply, flat
land and lengthy growing season.
"The problem they're going to have with Ventria
is you lose 10 days of growing season if you get as
far north as St. Louis," he said. "When you
lose days like that, it may not be enough to let your
Also, Bryan said, few places outside Southeast Missouri
have enough natural irrigation to grow rice. Southeast
Missouri also has the best soil types for growing rice,
Deeter, however, said it can be done in other parts
of the state. Ventria's project doesn't need as big
a yield as rice for food. The company is evaluating
four different areas of the state to see which one would
work best. The company also is looking at developing
new varieties of rice that could be grown in less-than-ideal
"Obviously, Southeast Missouri was our first choice
for a reason," he said. "Now we're looking
for the second-best area. So we know our potential for
lost yield is increased. So we'll just have to cross
If no crop is grown this year in Missouri, Ventria
will make another go of it in the state in 2006, Deeter
said, though not in Southeast Missouri. Ventria has
developed a partnership with Northwest Missouri State
University, which played a big role in bringing the
company to Missouri from California, where it had similar
The university signed an agreement last year with Ventria
in which Northwest agreed to build and equip a $30 million
plant sciences center in Maryville, Mo., to house Ventria.
Deeter said the company still plans to honor that commitment
to Missouri and to that university.
He also hopes some of the rice farmers will have their
concerns allayed if the Food and Drug Administration
rules that genetically modified rice -- specifically
the proteins that will be created -- is safe for human
consumption. That may smooth out the process next year.
The FDA is studying that issue.
But farmers still have concerns. About 30 rice farmers
and two state legislators gathered to discuss them Friday
night at a meeting in Dexter held by the Missouri Rice
Research and Merchandising Council.
"Even if it's more than 120 miles from us, we
still have concerns," said B.J. Campbell, a board
member who farms 700 acres near Qulin, Mo. "There's
still birds that can carry it that far. Those birds
fly hundreds of miles, and it could still end up in
Campbell wants to see legislation drafted to set parameters
for growing "pharm crops," such as strict
monitoring and legally requiring Ventria to keep the
genetically modified crops 120 miles from the commercial
"When it comes to rice buyers, there's a zero
tolerance when it comes to genetically modified rice,"
he said. "We can't afford to take another hit to