The California Rice Commission (CRC) has narrowly approved (by a vote of 6 to 5) planting guidelines for genetically modified (GMO) rice crops developed by Sacramento biotech company, Ventria Biosciences. This brings the company one step closer to the country's first commercialization of a drug-producing food crop. Ventria's pharmaceutical rice has been genetically engineered with synthetic human genes to produce two pharmaceutical proteins - lactoferrin and lysozyme â€“ commonly used as anti-microbials and anti-diarrheals.
There is growing concern in the farming community that Ventria's pharm rice will contaminate the crops of other rice farmers and ultimately the food supply. Though the approved guidelines restrict production to regions that do not currently grow rice (e.g., Los Angeles, Orange, San Diego, and seven other Southern California counties), they do not limit how far away the rice is transported for milling, or the location of research fields.
Groups from Japan, which is the biggest foreign market for Californian rice, recently informed farmers in both Canada and the United States that they would not buy certain crops from either country if GE varieties of those crops are introduced. "Consumers in Japan will not accept GE contamination of any crop," said rice farmer Greg Massa, "The decision to approve Ventria's guidelines is bad news for farmers and California's rice industry."
Ventria has not performed any tests to determine either the human health or environmental effects of their pharmaceutical rice. They have also failed to publicly disclose how they plan to market the rice. "Ventria currently has no federal approval for commercializing these genetically engineered crops," said Rebecca Spector from The Center for Food Safety. "The CRC made today's decision in a regulatory vacuum."
The Food and Drug Administration has established a zero tolerance for pharmaceutical crop products in food and animal feed supplies. In 2002, corn engineered to produce an experimental diarrhea vaccine for pigs was discovered in a soybean crop destined for a grain elevator.
"Contamination is inevitable under this protocol and the CRC did not act in the best interests of California rice farmers or consumers," said Renata Brillinger of Californians for GE-Free Agriculture.
The proposal will now go to the California Department of Food and Agriculture for final approval. The CRC recommended that the approval be granted under an emergency regulatory provision. This would require the CDFA to make a decision in 10 days and circumvent the normal public review process.