Pharmaceutical rice stirs little dust in Kansas

A frustrated Dan Nagengast, executive director of the Kansas Rural Center, said after a recent forum on pharmaceutical crops that opponents needed to take the fight somewhere else.

Some 35 to 40 people attended the forum in Topeka on Nov. 14, which provided a pile of handouts, but it got little press and essentially no public reaction despite Kansas’ being the home to one of the first full-scale field production trials of pharmaceutical-producing rice to be grown in the United States.

U.S. long-grain rice, Photo by Keith Weller courtesy USDA Agricultural Research ServiceThe lack of public response is probably due to the fact that Kansas isn’t a rice-growing state, unlike neighboring Missouri, which, like California, ran off Ventria Bioscience and its plans to grow the genetically modified rice. The rice has been altered to produce proteins in human breast milk with the stated intention of using it to reduce childhood deaths from diarrhea in third-world countries. There’s some question as to whether third-world countries would buy the stuff (which hasn’t been approved as yet by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration), especially when, as Nagengast notes, “What they really need is clean water.”

The absence of rice growers whose crops might be threatened by the adulterated rice means only the most aware farmers (the Kansas Organic Producers, the American Corn Growers) are raising a fuss in Kansas. Evidently, it’s not a sufficiently sexy topic to garner much interest in the state’s largest newspapers, the Wichita Eagle and the Kansas City Star. (The Star is based in Missouri, but a significant portion of its circulation is in Kansas.) The considerably smaller Topeka Capital-Journal has had several articles, including some that cover opponents’ views, but the reporting in the Junction City Daily Union, where Ventria landed, could just as well have been written by the Ventria public relations department in conjunction with the city’s economic development promoters. The Manhattan Mercury, just down the road from Junction City and home to Kansas’ ag school at Kansas State University, has next to nothing, which may be a clue as to how the ag school’s faculty feels about it. (I wonder who its big donors are….) Given that the news media around here aren’t paying attention, it’s not all that surprising that people aren’t either.

Nagengast has been watching, though, more so, he figures, than any regulator who might have an interest. (Given the regulators’ low oversight of the clear and present dangers in, say, meatpacking, that’s hardly a surprise.) By his reckoning, which is seasoned by his years farming in the Midwest as well as growing rice in Africa, Ventria had a very poor crop in 2007. Water’s a problem. Although flooded paddies might not be necessary, rice is a big water user, but central Kansas isn’t soggy and the area where Ventria's crops were grown doesn’t have the kind of heavy soil that holds moisture.

Maybe the inability to grow and process the rice economically enough to make this venture worthwhile will obviate the safety concerns and Ventria will move on to other projects. Until it does, though, Nagengast cites the typical worries for any pharmacrop or other genetically modified crop. Among them are the potential for modified grain to contaminate unmodified crops in the field or at the grain elevator or downwind or where birds fly or where animals travel. If foreign bugs can cross oceans on ships, is there really any doubt that a GM rice seed will travel a migrating bird’s GI tract or stick in an animal’s fur and wind up in Texas, a major rice-growing state? And the whole tornado thing? It’s not a daily worry, but tornados do happen, and they do carry things far, far away.

Rice, as it happens, provides a fifth of the world’s dietary energy (aka calories). Nagengast says, “This represents a needless and self-inflicted food safety risk.” Good point. Do we really want to risk this hugely important staple crop?

I think Dan’s on to something with the clean water idea. Maybe Ventria should pursue that. In the meantime, there’s a new oral cholera vaccine that could make a big difference in third-world deaths from diarrhea. And last year, the FDA approved a vaccine against rotavirus, which also would be a huge help. Now, whether these vaccines will make it to third-world countries, I don’t know, but they make a lot more sense than this rice does — but you’re probably not going to hear that said much in Kansas.

If you’re interested in some of the handouts, see especially the pdf, A Grain of Caution: A Critical Assessment of Pharmaceutical Rice, or perhaps the pdf of the Rural Center’s official response to the USDA about the Ventria proposal.

Photo by Keith Weller, courtesy USDA Agricultural Research Service


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