|Grain of Doubt:
Genetically modified rice in Eastern North Carolina is
setting off a whirlwind of criticism and concern
By David Rice
STREET JOURNAL RALEIGH, Sunday, July 10, 2005
PLYMOUTH - North Carolina farmers haven't grown rice
in many years, so they welcome the green sprigs now
poking out of a flooded field near an agricultural-research
But this is not your Uncle Ben's rice.
Last month, with approval of two permits from the U.S.
Department of Agriculture, Ventria Bioscience, a biotechnology
company in California, planted 75 acres of rice that
has been genetically engineered to produce proteins
found in human milk, saliva and tears.
The company says that the proteins it will extract
from the rice eventually could be used in granola bars,
sports drinks or rehydration formula to help infants
in the Third World avoid death from diarrhea.
Environmentalists say that the rice poses a significant
threat to other crops and to the human food chain.
The planting is on private land near the state-owned
Tidewater Research Station in Washington County. On
the way to North Carolina, Ventria encountered opposition
from rice growers, food vendors and environmentalists
in California and Missouri.
When the company tried to grow its rice in Missouri
this spring, beer-maker Anheuser-Busch threatened not
to buy any rice grown in Missouri. The two companies
eventually reached a truce in which Ventria agreed not
to grow genetically modified rice within 120 miles of
commercial rice crops.
Environmentalists and others say that the recent planting
of Ventria's rice crop near Plymouth brings the international
debate over genetically modified foods to North Carolina.
It also tests the state's considerable efforts to throw
out a welcome mat for the biotech industry.
"If it wasn't a food crop, I think it would be
a lot less controversial. But they've chosen to introduce
a genetically modified, pharmaceutical-producing food
crop in North Carolina," said Hope Shand, the research
director at the Action Group on Erosion, Technology
and Concentration in Carrboro.
"They were run out of California, run out of Missouri,
and then welcomed with open arms in Eastern North Carolina,"
Shand said. "I just can't see this as a viable
rural-development strategy for North Carolina.
"Many scientists have concluded that it's virtually
impossible to contain these pharmaceutical crops,"
Shand said. "It's not just a bunch of wild-eyed
environmentalists who are concerned about this. We have
the Grocery Manufacturers Association, the Food Products
Association who are concerned about this experiment."
Researchers also use a nursery at the research station,
less than a mile from Ventria's test site, to grow seed
stock for new rice varieties. Scientists involved in
those tests say that Plymouth was chosen for the tests
because it is 650 miles east of any commercial rice
At least two scientists wrote to the USDA to say that
there is a remote possibility that pollen or disease
from Ventria's rice could contaminate rice grown at
the nearby nursery and be distributed to rice growers
"It's not smart to introduce this pharmaceutical
rice so close to germplasm rice," said Jane Rissler,
a senior scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists
"That's the fundamental mistake - pharmaceuticals
should not be grown in food crops," Rissler said.
"With human error, with the vagaries of weather,
it's going to be practically impossible to keep this
out of the food supply."
Company officials say that the risks are overstated,
and that they take every precaution to isolate Ventria's
They point out that, unlike corn, rice is self-pollinating.
The plant's male and female organs are contained within
the same flower, so its pollen rarely travels farther
than a few feet.
"There is a .001 percent chance of cross-pollination
within 10 or 15 feet," said Somen Nandi, the director
of molecular breeding for Ventria, who is evaluating
which of the company's rice varieties grow best in North
At the test site, an 18-inch dike borders the rice
plots to keep water in the field. A dedicated ditch
provides water only to the rice field, and water is
screened before it leaves the field to keep rice from
Company officials say they will use equipment that
is used only to grow and harvest Ventria's rice. After
harvest, they will drain the field and burn the remnants
to destroy plant matter.
And they say that adequate buffers are in place to
protect other crops from any crop migration. Nandi pointed
to a field of cotton 200 feet away, across a dirt road
and a ditch.
"Not a single plant of rice will grow there. Not
a single plant," he said. "It (the rice plot)
is a completely unique ecological niche."
Like much of the cotton grown in Eastern North Carolina,
the cotton across the road has been genetically modified
for resistance to the herbicide Roundup so that farmers
can overspray young plants and make fewer applications
"This (cotton) is 100 percent GMO," Nandi
said. "What's the problem with rice?"
Scott Deeter, Ventria's president, says that human
proteins for use in rehydration formulas such as Pedialyte
could help prevent the deaths of 1.9 million children
that the World Health Organization estimates are killed
by diarrhea each year.
"Breast-fed babies are healthier than babies who
are fed with infant formula. These two proteins are
part of the reason for that," Deeter said.
"It's a significant human-health problem,"
he said. "The challenge, of course, is we've got
to have a cost-effective, affordable therapy. That's
the advantage of using the rice."
Once harvested, Ventria's rice would not enter the
food supply as grain, he said. It would be pulverized
into a powder. "We're not directly feeding the
rice. We're using the rice sort of as a factory, and
we're extracting the proteins," he said. Though
it won USDA approval to grow its rice here, Ventria
is still waiting for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration
to approve its two human proteins - lactoferrin and
lysozyme - for use in foods. The proteins are being
tested in Peru for use in treating acute diarrhea, Deeter
"Putting proteins that are in saliva in a plant
- every time we swallow, we're swallowing these proteins,"
Deeter said. "The only difference here that I can
see is that it's new."
If Ventria wins FDA approval of its products, he said,
the company will try to expand production, depending
"At peak, 20,000 to 30,000 acres is a possibility
if we're very successful. How much of that is in North
America, and ultimately in North Carolina, is an open
question," he said.
Researchers at N.C. State University who are monitoring
the project say they are investigating many of the claims
from environmentalists and the food industry that Ventria's
rice crop could migrate, cross-pollinate with other
plants and contaminate the human food supply.
"Our interest is in monitoring these very sorts
of issues," said Ron Heiniger, an associate professor
of crop science who works at the Plymouth research station.
"That's what we're concerned about - do we get
rice where we didn't get rice before?" he said.
"I'd like the opportunity to know scientifically
what the risks are."
Because no rice is grown commercially in North Carolina,
researchers will know exactly where it came from if
it shows up outside the test plots, Heiniger said.
"We'd have the environment to isolate the crop
... and prevent the crop movement," he said. "If
it is a worst-case scenario, if we get a lot of movement
of rice, then what better place to know that?"
Washington County lies along a major bird-migratory
route. Bald eagles soar over the research station and
the rice field in summer, occasionally plucking catfish
from ponds at the research station. Rather than pollen
migration, Heiniger said, the possibility of movement
of the rice crop through waterfowl and other birds that
feed on rice seed is researchers' biggest concern.
They also want to study how to keep rice seed from
washing away during major floods like those caused by
Hurricane Floyd in 1999.
"It'd be a miracle, frankly, to get the pollen
to cross-pollinate," he said. "There are unknowns,
as with anything.... You expect the unexpected - such
Deeter and Nandi, though, point to studies that found
that once birds eat rice seeds, they digest them completely.
"Once they're digested, they're not viable,"
Deeter said. "It seems plausible, but it's not
really supported by the science.... You've got to use
the science, because if you don't use the science, you're
just using emotion."
And despite his own questions about birds, Heiniger
sees enormous potential for farmers who grow Ventria's
"They think they could have a huge impact on the
health of children in the Third World," he said.
"These proteins right now come out of mammalian
tissue.... We're talking hundreds of dollars per ounce.
If they can grow them in rice that can be readily harvested,
we're talking cents per pound."
Genetically modified crops such as Roundup-ready cotton
and soybeans, as well as corn that has been genetically
altered for insect resistance, are already common in
So in rural Washington County, residents appear far
more worried about the U.S. Navy's plans to build an
outlying landing field (OLF) than about genetically
Local farmers who are accustomed to growing genetically
modified corn, cotton and soybeans appear to welcome
Ventria's overtures as a new opportunity for value-added
"Several of them have offered - 'You can use my
land,'" Heiniger said.
Joe Landino, the president of the Blackland Farm Managers
Association, a group of about 50 large-scale farmers
in several eastern counties, says that farmers are excited
about growing pharmaceutical rice and think that Ventria's
effort will be a tightly controlled experiment.
Organic farmers, in particular, are often wary of genetically
modified crops that could creep into their fields. But
the closest organic farmer to Ventria's test site says
he isn't worried.
"It's a virtual impossibility," said Wade
Hubers, who grows organic corn and soybeans in Hyde
County, roughly 12 miles from the research station.
Hubers said that the organic corn and soybeans he grows
fetch twice the price of conventional crops, more than
making up for the lower yield on organic crops.
But the potential benefits from Ventria's rice far
outweigh the risks, he said.
"They're going to have a good buffer around it,"
he said. Though there are some risks, Hubers said, "I
look at this rice kind of like a pharmaceutical company
growing it in a greenhouse. It's that kind of risk."
When rice growers in Missouri opposed Ventria's plans
there, "I think they totally overreacted to it,
but that's to North Carolina's benefit," Hubers
Landino said that despite environmentalists' worries,
economic forces will continue to drive demand for drugs
and other products that can be grown in plants.
"There's opposition to this biotechnology worldwide.
But it's all in vain, because people are going to be
begging for these biotech products," he said. "You
don't want to shut down something that can be so productive
in the future."
He also noted that although there is no commercial
rice grown in North Carolina, there are a few small
plantings for ducks and other waterfowl.
"We've grown rice before down here," he said.
"We know we can grow rice. This is just a special
project that needs a little more intensive management."
* David Rice can be reached in Raleigh at (919) 833-9056
or at email@example.com