Farmers, Consumers Balk at Pharma Rice

The Progressive Populist
Rural Routes

by Margot Ford McMillen 

Missourians are accustomed to being near the bottom on policy issues that require wisdom and foresight. We're 48th or 49th of the 50 states in spending on things like clean water, education, health care. Luckily, there's always Arkansas or Mississippi to keep us out of last place.

So it was a shock to learn a few weeks ago that Missouri spending was number one when our state ponied up $30 million to bring a future-changing technology to farmers in the boot heel. We reportedly outspent California, Arkansas and Louisiana. But, unlike spending on clean water, education or health care, this technology has no benefits, no usefulness and no allies except for a few venture capitalists backing Ventria Biosciences, a firm that wants to raise GMO rice.

Well, there is one other ally. The president of Northwest Missouri State University, Dean L. Hubbard, who joined Ventria's Board of Directors in January 2005.

And, right on the heels of spending for Ventria, our state cancelled the fledgling organics program, which cost less than $100,000 per year and which consumers and farmers did want and supported! On the lookout for outrage? Top that!

The Missouri boot heel is a steamy, swampy ecosystem perfect for rice production. Ventria proposes to plant 120 acres of pharmaceutical rice in the midst of it. If the pharma-rice gets into the human food system, Starlink-style, it could be the end of that industry.

Plant-made-pharmaceuticals, or PMPS, are the new faces in genetic engineering. Promoters claim that they have found ways by tinkering with the DNA to transform plants into "bio-factories" that turn out products like human blood thinner or insulin. Ventria wants to tinker with three PMPs. One is a gene found in human breast milk, another a gene found in human saliva, and the third, an artificial blood protein. Sound useful? So far, nobody has spoken up to buy these products, if indeed the products are ever really created.

And, to make things more troublesome, these rice plants will be grown near regular food crops where they can pollinate plants that are purchased by Riceland or Anheuser-Busch or exported and used for food.

While we don't know a lot about the side effects of genetically engineered (GE) crops, there are scientific data dating back to 1996 confirming that allergens can be transferred in genetically-modified crops. In 1999, Arpad Pusztai of Rowett Laboratories in Aberdeen, Scotland, discovered that genetically modified potatoes severely damage the immune system and organs of rats. In a 2001 laboratory experiment in St. Louis, unexpected liver tumors in mice brought one genetic engineering experiment to an early end.

And those are just the health problems we know about. Since nobody has completed long-term feeding trials or other experiments, we don't know very much.

Environmentally, GE crops (also called "transgenic" or "GMO") have been a disaster. Roundup-Ready (R-R) canola, which carries the trait of resistance to the planet's most potent and dangerous herbicide, has crossed with regular canola, creating a super weed. The R-R gene has infected other plants as well, creating Roundup-Resistant weeds like R-R ragweed.

Bt crops have been genetically modified by adding a gene from a bacteria to the DNA so that every cell of the plant carries a lethal pesticide. Bt crops are supposed to kill specific pests, like corn root worm, but Bt crops are being blamed for poisoning fields and killing monarch butterfly caterpillars and other harmless creatures.

When Missouri boot heel farmers learned about the plans of Ventria, they were furious. There are almost 200,000 Missouri acres in rice and most export partners have refused to buy GMO products because their consumers don't want them. One producer, who processes rice in his own mill and ships it overseas in 44,000-pound containers, says the invasion of pharma-rice into food supplies can come from many directions: human error; seeds carried by wind, birds or flooding water; or pollination of normal crops by wind. There has already been contamination of all types in the GE corn and soybean crops already common in US fields.

During the USDA comment period, which ended March 25, many activists worked to bring attention to this problem. Kurt Kiebler of Kansas City Food Circle was the first on my radar screen; he unraveled the snaky relationship between the swampy boot heel, where rice-growing conditions are excellent, and Northwest Missouri State University, where it's dry and windy.

As the story developed, Bill Freese of Friends of the Earth came to Columbia and began conversations with friends and allies. Through his efforts, the University of Missouri-Columbia law school sponsored a forum with farmers and experts. By March, Riceland had expressed grave doubts about buying Missouri rice if the biopharm plan went through. On April 13, Anheuser-Busch announced that they would not buy rice from states that grow GM rice. The next day, their stock rose 60 cents.

When I heard the Budweiser announcement, I thought they were reacting to the April 10 news from the EU that Bt-10 maize (corn) had mistakenly gotten into European food supplies and the Europeans were angry. Bt-10 maize has been blamed for contributing to antibiotic-resistance in human diseases and has not been approved by the EU for import. Probably, I thought, the King of Beers had heard this, wants to boost its exports and decided to go GMO-free.

Less than a week later, Anheuser-Busch changed their brave stand and said they'd buy rice if it was grown more than 120 miles from the Ventria site.

What toads. has called for a boycott and a phone-in to 1-800-DIAL BUD, the official Budweiser consumer line.

With those lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer just around the corner, consumers can make the King change its tune.

Margot Ford McMillen farms and teaches English at a college in Fulton, Mo.


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