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Mad Scientists ‘Pharm’ Rice with Human Genes

Well, the mad scientists are on the loose again.

Paul Elias, Biotech writer for the Associated Press, reported yesterday that Ventria, a tiny biosciences company headquartered in Sacramento, is developing a new drug to fight infant diarrhea.  Sounds great? Not so fast.  This new drug is grown in rice, genetically engineered with a HUMAN gene.

Biopharming Rice

It’s not just Christians who are upset.  Environmental groups, food producers and thousands of farmers across the country have been chasing out Ventria Bioscience’s rice farms.  So far they’ve succeeded in two states, including Ventria’s home state, California.  Big whigs like Anheuser-Busch Inc. and Riceland Foods Inc., the world’s largest rice miller, stepped up to the place to push Ventria out of Missouri last year.

“We just want them to go away,” Bob Papanos of the U.S. Rice Producers Association said to the Associated Press. “This little company could cause major problems.”

Ventria is part of a new field of biosciences called “biopharming.” Biopharmers operate open-air drug factories by splicing human genes into crops to produce proteins that can be turned into medicines.  Wait, didn’t we see this on X-Files??

Ventria’s rice apparently produces two human proteins found in mother’s milk, saliva and tears, which help people hydrate and lessen the severity and duration of diarrhea attacks.

As if putting a HUMAN gene into a piece of rice isn’t alarming enough, critics also complain that Ventria is recklessly plowing ahead with a mostly untested technology that threatens the safety of EXISTING conventional crops grown for food.  Since these crops are “open air,” farmers and environmentalists fear that these mutated crops may mix with conventional crops making them unsafe to eat.  Proponents of biopharming disagree, saying that their rice is “self-pollinating.”

Ventria CEO Scott Deeter dismissed the concerns to AP, saying, “We use a contained system.”

Meanwhile, rice farmers are concerned that biosciences-averse countries like Japan and Western Europe will stop buying rice fron the U.S. if biopharming continues.  The AP reports that exports account for 50% of the rice industry’s $1.18 billion in annual sales.

Even with such vehement opposition, Ventria has remained steadfast in its plans. The company finally received U.S. Department of Agriculture clearance to expand its operation near Greenville, NC, from 70 acres to 335 acres.

“The issue is the growing of pharmaceutical products in food crops grown outdoors,” Hope Shand of the environmental nonprofit ETC Group in Carrboro, N.C. said to the Associated Press.  “The chance this will contaminate traditionally grown crops is great. This is a very risky business.”

Ventria’s chief executive told AP that he hopes to have an approval this year to market his “protein powder” and envisions a $100 million annual market in the U.S. and a $500 million market overseas.  However, overcoming opposition to biopharming from the Grocery Manufacturers Association of America, which represents food, beverage and consumer products companies with combined U.S. sales of $460 billion, could prove to be an insurmountable task.

The Associated Press also noted that Ventria hopes to add its protein powder to existing infant products. There is no requirement to label any food products in the United States as containing genetically engineered ingredients.  The company also plans to add its product to infant formula, a $10 billion-a-year market, even though the major food manufacturers have so far shown little interest in using genetically engineered ingredients. But Deeter believes that Ventria can win over the manufacturers and consumers by showing the company’s products are beneficial.

Please share this article with anyone you know who has a young child or may have a young child in the next several years.

Links: http://www.ventria.comhttp://www.usriceproducers.com/  | http://www.usda.gov

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