Biotech rice firm looks at backup plans

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 less likely.

"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 said.

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 concerns.

Unlikely to meet deadline

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 new one.

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, she said.

Differences in climate

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 crop mature."

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, Bryan said.

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 conditions.

"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 our fingers."

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 troubles.

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.

Hoping for FDA ruling

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 our crops."

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 rice crops.

"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 our markets."