There may be fewer environmentalists to spar with in the Missouri Bootheel, but leaving California for the Show-Me State has yet to yield a grain of pharmaceutical rice for Ventria BioScience. And until the Gordian knot of GM rice and markets is untied, Missouri rice producers vow to fight the company and protect their businesses.

The latest turn in Ventria's vagabond tale came in late April when the company, despite continuous backing from the Missouri Department of Agriculture, announced it wouldn't be able to go ahead with plans to plant its rice in the state. The company may shift production again, this time to the southeast, where it has already obtained USDA permission to grow acreage in North Carolina.

A review of the last few months shows a whirlwind of Ventria-inspired activity in the Bootheel.

Market worries

“Farmers have got enough going against us without making the markets nervous unnecessarily,” said Sonny Martin, chairman of the Missouri Rice Research and Merchandising Council in February. “It doesn't matter how much I want to help dehydrated children in some awful war-zone, it doesn't matter how much I want pharmaceutical crops to be grown successfully and how many value-added dollars they could put in my pocket. All that matters is our customers don't want any medicine in their breakfast cereal. In the future, if the markets can be convinced otherwise, fine — I might grow pharm-rice myself. But, right now, are we really willing to damage — or even ruin — our rice markets over this? We could literally be driven out of business by a few acres of this stuff.”

The “stuff” Martin refers to is a genetically modified rice — a plant-made pharmaceutical (PMP) — developed by Ventria, until recently a Sacramento-based company. The company's rice is engineered to produce proteins found in human saliva, tears and mother's milk. The proteins can be extracted from the rice to make cheaper medicines.

Beginning in April, Ventria planned to grow 150 acres of their rice on a farm near Chaffee, on the northern edge of Missouri rice country. The nearest conventional rice field was to be 7 miles distant.

That wasn't nearly far enough for those opposing the PMP. Cross-contamination with conventional rice was their most cited fear. But opponents were most fearful that even the proximity of pharma-rice to conventional could be a problem.

“Perception is reality,” said Martin. “If those buying our rice even perceive a problem, it could be trouble.”

Risk versus benefit

Ventria said Bootheel worries were overblown. In a written response to Farm Press questions, Scott Deeter, Ventria CEO, explained the benefits of pharm-rice: “Ventria is producing two proteins, lactoferrin and lysozyme…These proteins have antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory and iron binding properties. Ventria is currently developing an oral rehydration solution including lactoferrin and lysozyme to manage diarrhea and dehydration. Ventria believes that the addition of these two proteins to an oral rehydration solution will provide improved management and intestinal protection, not just rehydration of the child.

According to the World Health Organization, on a worldwide basis 1.3 million children under the age of 5 die of acute diarrhea. Ventria utilizes rice and barley to produce these therapeutic proteins and estimates the cost would increase by more than 30 times to produce the same proteins using other systems of production. Plant-made pharmaceuticals have the potential to provide patients with the benefit of greater access to necessary medicines.”

“If Ventria wants to help people, it's noble,” said Martin, who annually farms between 700 and 1,200 acres of rice. “I would never knock that. But how big their heart is isn't what we're worried about. Our focus is on the markets and protecting our businesses.”

Left California

California rice growers were worried about the same things, but Ventria won approval from rice growers to grow the rice far from the heart of California rice production. However, the California Department of Food and Agriculture did not grant permission, citing a lack of federal permits. Rather than continue efforts to produce the rice in California, Ventria pulled up stakes and went to Missouri.

“I've followed rice marketing and trade issues for years,” said Bob Papanos, vice president of international programs for the U.S. Rice Producers Association. “Rice farmers are right to be worried. I'm sure farmers recall StarLink and Prodigy in Nebraska. If there's even a hint that Ventria's pharma-rice has contaminated food-grade rice, we're in serious trouble. Actually, foreign trade negotiators can use this against us whether there's contamination or not. This could actually give them leverage in trade talks. And anyone who thinks any fallout could be kept isolated in the Bootheel doesn't know what they're talking about. Folks overseas don't pay attention to the Missouri/Arkansas border — they just see one big swath of rice running down through the Delta. That's the way it is.”

Odd alliances

The fight against Ventria's PMPs resulted in several odd alliances, none stranger than that of Bootheel producers and Friends of the Earth (FOE).

In March, Freese — a research analyst with FOE who has written two comprehensive papers regarding Ventria's pharma-rice — said the company had, “been all over the map with regard to what they plan to do. They like to talk about saving children but I've also heard them say it will be too expensive for that particular application.”

The interest of FOE in the issue isn't coincidental — the organization has a dog in the fight.

“We have a ‘Safer Foods, Safer Farms’ campaign,” said Freese. “This focuses on our desire for mandatory testing and labeling. We also want biotech companies to bear liability when things go wrong, which isn't the case, right now. It's a shame that the government hasn't made biotech companies own up to their responsibilities. There's just too much risk of (pharma-crop genes) getting into the food supply.”

As of mid-March, Freese believed there was a “good chance Ventria's efforts in the Bootheel can be shut down. The food industry is finally waking up to this — they haven't been very informed about the situation until now. I believe they'll now begin to exert their influence. That pressure, along with the Bootheel farmers, can stop this.”

April hits hard

Freese's words proved prophetic because on April 7, Anheuser-Busch executives met with Missouri Department of Agriculture officials in St. Louis where a “no buy” warning was given. The boycott threat hit hard because Busch is the largest domestic rice purchaser.

“The Busch folks asked the Missouri Agriculture Department director to explain where the state was on this issue,” said Paul Combs, a Bootheel farmer who sits the USA Rice Federation's board of directors and attended the meeting. “The director said while it was still in the USDA permitting process, the state had been in contact with scientists around the world talking about the value of PMPs. In the end, he said the state would give Ventria permission to plant their rice and the state is supportive of the PMP industry and concept.”

At that point, said Combs, Busch executives admitted transgenic crops are here to stay and the company isn't opposed to the health benefits such crops could provide.

“But then they hit on their big point: this PMP isn't regarded as safe for the food industry. They drew a distinction between herbicide-tolerant crops and PMPs. Busch's senior executive said, ‘We aren't trying to tell the state what to do. But if Ventria goes forward, we won't purchase any rice either grown or processed in the state of Missouri.’ He said because it's not regarded as safe, Busch would have to recall products if this PMP rice accidentally found its way (into food grade). He made it clear it would cost the company big in terms of money and brand image.”

The compromise

A week later on April 15, Ventria announced it would move its pharmaceutical rice 120 miles from the nearest Bootheel rice field. As a result, Busch officials' concerns were alleviated. The beer giant agreed to continue purchasing rice grown and processed in Missouri.

On news of Ventria's move away from the Bootheel's $95 million rice crop, Missouri Governor Matt Blunt said, “This compromise represents a huge step forward for the Missouri life sciences industry, value-added agriculture, and the important humanitarian goal of improving the health of children. It is imperative our state has an environment that encourages the biotechnology industry and value-added agriculture opportunities, which will help sustain Missouri's economy for generations to come. I am pleased that Anheuser-Busch and Ventria have reached a fair compromise that furthers cutting-edge life-sciences technology while protecting current markets for Missouri rice farmers. Biotech companies from around the country, if not the world, are watching our state today, and this agreement sends a clear message that Missouri is a great place for technology.”

While that may be true, Ventria won't be growing any pharmaceutical rice in the state this year. The company's rice is a 155-day variety and, as a result, permits to plant in a new Missouri location would have come too late in the season.

e-mail: dbennett@primediabusiness.com