Ventria Bioscience has managed to splice human genes coding for proteins in breast milk, tears and saliva into rice as a way to mitigate the effects of diarrhea. Unfortunately, no one wants them for a neighbor.
But farmers, environmentalists and others fear that such medicinal crops will mix with conventional crops, making them unsafe to eat…
“We just want them to go away,” said Bob Papanos of the U.S. Rice Producers Association. “This little company could cause major problems.”
The company says the chance of its genetically engineered rice ending up in the food supply is remote because the company grinds the rice and extracts the protein before shipping. What’s more, rice is “self-pollinating,” and it’s virtually impossible for genetically engineered rice to accidentally cross breed with conventional crops.
…Regardless, U.S. rice farmers in particular fear that important overseas customers in lucrative, biotechnology-averse countries like Japan will shun U.S. crops if biopharming is allowed to proliferate. Exports account for 50 percent of the rice industry’s $1.18 billion in annual sales.
Japanese consumers, like those in Western Europe, are still alarmed by past mad cow disease outbreaks mishandled by their governments, making them deeply skeptical of any changes to their food supply, including genetically engineered crops.
Rice interests in California drove Ventria’s experimental work out of the state in 2004, after Japanese customers said they wouldn’t buy the rice if Ventria were allowed to set up shop.
…But Ventria was undeterred. The company, which has its headquarters in Sacramento, finally landed near Greenville, N.C. In March it received U.S. Department of Agriculture clearance to expand its operation there from 70 acres to 335 acres. Ventria is hoping to get regulatory clearance this year to market its diarrhea-fighting protein powder.
There has been little resistance from corporate and farming interest in eastern North Carolina. But the company’s work has raised the hackles of environmentalists there.
“The issue is the growing of pharmaceutical products in food crops grown outdoors,” said Hope Shand of the environmental nonprofit ETC Group in Carrboro, N.C. “The chance this will contaminate traditionally grown crops is great. This is a very risky business.”
Frustrating to say the least. While oversight of the food supply is important, it seems like the world will be a more dangerous place from the threat of reflexive fear and special interests, compared to the threat from modified rice.
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