Rice at the Center of Genetic Engineering Maelstrom

April 11, 2007

March went out like a lion for adversaries in the arena of food and pharmaceutical crop engineering.

The end of the month marked the closing of the public comment period on the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service's environmental assessment for its recent preliminary decision to approve planting of up to 3,200 acres in Geary County, Kansas, of rice engineered with human genes for lysozyme, lactoferrin, and serum albumin.

The Sacramento, CA-based Ventria BioScience developed the pharmaceutical rice strain to fortify diet snacks and oral rehydration formulas for relief of diarrhea, the second leading killer of children, according to the World Health Organization. The company and officials announced an agreement in September 2006 to process the rice in Junction City, KS.

Rice farmers, environmentalists, and food safety advocates strenuously oppose the permit for its economic and health implications. They fear that the proposed dramatic increase in acreage for pharmaceutical cropping augurs a repeat of a 2002 incident in which a vaccine-producing corn contaminated a half million bushels of soybeans, especially since documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act show neither Ventria nor USDA adhere to pharma crop requirements.

Rice farmers are especially sensitive to this proposal because of the recent escape of Bayer CropScience's genetically engineered rice that was not approved for human consumption. That rice contaminated export harvests, halting sales to Japan, Europe, and (temporarily) Mexico, which is the United States' largest single export destination. Hundreds of growers nationwide are seeking compensation in at least two class action lawsuits.

The USDA and its counterpart in Mexico subsequently legalized the runaway strain, called Liberty Link 601, so stores in both countries can sell varieties it affects, much to the chagrin of consumer watchdogs, such as Greenpeace Mexico.

Around the time of the deregulation, in November 2006, the scientific journal Molecular Ecology published the first evidence of transgenes' escape into wild plant populations within the United States - news which also raises concerns for wild rice harvesters.

For many more resources and angles on genetically engineered products, see TipSheets of Aug. 30, 2006; Feb. 18 and June 23, 2004; March 6and Aug. 21, 2002; and July 11, 2001.