‘Pharmaceutical’ Rice Plan Advances in State

Times Staff Writer

The state’s rice industry on Monday narrowly backed a Sacramento company’s plan to launch the first large-scale planting in California of a genetically engineered crop for use in medicines.

Ventria Bioscience needs approval from the state Department of Food and Agriculture before it can begin growing so-called pharmaceutical rice, which has been modified to produce two types of human proteins. The endorsement by the California Rice Commission was forwarded to the agency with the request that it quickly review the plan so Ventria could begin planting in mid-April, the start of the rice season.

Ventria’s rice plants act as mini-biological factories to produce two proteins, lactoferrin and lysozyme. The proteins, which inhibit the growth of bacteria and viruses, would be extracted from the rice after harvest. . The rice isn’t intended for human consumption.

Privately held Ventria sees a market potential of as much as $500 million for the compounds, which could be administered as pills or in oral-rehydration solutions, such as electrolyte drinks, said Chief Executive Scott Deeter.


Such products would require U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval.

California farmers already grow genetically engineered cotton for commercial use, and there are other modified crops grown elsewhere around the country.

But the rice commission’s 6-5 vote, which came after three hours of debate, underscored the larger controversy surrounding the use of genetically modified organisms.

In particular, the planting of genetically altered crops intended for use in pharmaceuticals became a hot-button issuetwo years ago when corn modified to make a pig vaccine tainted soybeans in Nebraska.


The incident forced ProdiGene Inc., the College Station, Texas, company that produced the engineered corn, to destroy half a million bushels and compensate farmers $3 million.

Just last week, the North American Millers Assn. sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Agriculture urging more stringent regulatory oversight of such crops.

The letter warned that “the risk of adulteration from genetic material” modified for pharmaceutical or industrial uses entering the food chain was, in its view, “unacceptable.”

On Monday, environmentalists and a number of rice farmers objected to Ventria’s plan for fear the genetically engineered grain could contaminate California’s existing rice crop and hurt exports.


Greg Massa, who farms 700 acres of rice in Colusa and Glenn counties, said that growing such a crop in California would be “bad news” for the state’s rice industry. The decision, he said, endangers sales to Japan, the industry’s biggest rice buyer, and other countries.

“We need to be able to say for marketing purposes that there is no genetically modified rice grown commercially in California,” Massa said.

About 43% of California’s $372-million rice crop was exported last year. All told, farmers produce 2 million tons of rice grown on more than 500,000 acres, mostly in Northern California.

The rice commission approved Ventria’s plan after agreeing the company had adequate safeguards for keeping the grain out of the food supply.


Most significantly, the rice would be planted in Southern California, hundreds of miles from the counties -- Colusa, Sutter, Butte, Glenn and Yuba -- where nearly 90% of the state’s rice is grown.

The firm also has stringent rules on how the pharmaceutical rice will be processed and on how equipment to farm and transport it can be used, said Tim Johnson, chief executive of the rice commission.

“We feel very confident that we will be able to keep this completely separate,” Johnson said.

Rice typically is a self-pollinating plant -- it doesn’t use pollen from other rice plants to reproduce. When it does cross-germinate, the pollen lasts for just a few hours, only long enough to reach plants that are within 10 to 20 feet, according to biologists.


Although “you can never be 100% certain,” said Peggy Lemaux, a plant biologist at UC Berkeley, Ventria appears to have developed a prudent plan for containing the genetically engineered rice.

Small plots of Ventria’s modified rice are being grown at undisclosed sites in the state under an experimental exemption.