Ventria Bioscience focuses on growing genetically modified rice in northwest Mo.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

WASHINGTON -- Five months after Ventria Bioscience was forced to scuttle plans to grow genetically modified rice in Missouri's Bootheel region, the company is focusing its sights on the northwest part of the state.

Scott Deeter, president of the Sacramento, Calif.-based company, said Wednesday he expects to file an application soon with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to grow the rice in one or more locations within 50 miles of Northwest Missouri State University, which is in Maryville.

There were questions about whether the soil and climate in the region would be conducive to growing rice, but Deeter said test patches of edible rice grown this year in both the northeast and northwest corners of the state yielded positive results.

"It's pretty amazing how well the rice did in both locations," Deeter said. "All four of our trials this year went really well."

Ventria has been trying for months to win approval to grow so-called pharmaceutical rice in Missouri. The rice is enhanced with synthetic human genes that produce the proteins lactoferrin and lysozyme.

Those proteins, normally found in human milk, saliva and tears, could then be harvested and refined for use in medicines to fight diarrhea, dehydration and other illnesses.

When the company applied for a permit in Missouri this spring, St. Louis-based beer giant Anheuser-Busch Cos. Inc. threatened not to buy any rice grown in the state if the plan went forward. Farmers, food vendors and environmentalists also raised concerns.

After state and congressional lawmakers intervened, the two companies reached a truce April 15 in which Ventria agreed not to grow genetically modified rice within 120 miles of the state's commercial rice crops, which are in the Bootheel.

Environmentalists say the project still poses a threat to other crops and to the human food chain, even hundreds of miles away from commercial rice farms.

"Our bottom line is there are hundreds of ways contamination could occur for them to all be successfully blocked if pharma crops are to be grown on a large scale in the United States," said Margaret Mellon, food and environment program director for the Union of Concerned Scientists in Washington.

High winds, birds and human error are just a few routes for modified rice to make its way into the food supply, Mellon said. Her organization opposes using food crops for pharmaceutical crop production.

Deeter claims the risks are exaggerated and that Ventria officials take precautions to isolate genetically modified rice. Unlike corn and other crops, rice is self-pollinating, meaning the plant's male and female organs are contained within the same flower and its pollen needs to travel just a few feet.

Still, Mellon said unusual weather patterns like hurricanes can render even the best precautions useless. She points to Hurricane Ophelia and its 85 mile-per-hour winds churning off the North Carolina coast. The storm is expected to pass right over Plymouth, N.C., where Ventria has already planted 75 acres of genetically modified rice.

Missouri officials support Ventria's efforts. Last year, Northwest Missouri State University and Ventria agreed to make the company the anchor of a $30 million Center of Excellence for plant-made pharmaceuticals on the university's campus. Ventria also plans to move its headquarters to Missouri.

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