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Other view: 'Pharmaceutical rice' is a no-grow

(Tuesday, May 18, 2004 -- CropChoice news) -- Greg Massa, Sacramento Bee, 05/14/04: Ventria Bioscience, a small, Sacramento-based biotechnology company, wants to grow a genetically engineered pharmaceutical rice in California. Human genes have been inserted into the rice to make it produce proteins that could be used to treat diarrhea. In other words, they want to grow drugs in a food crop.

Ignoring four months of negative public testimony by farmers and others, the California Rice Commission approved this proposal by a 6-5 vote. The majority of the board's farmer members disagreed with the plan, which asked for "emergency" approval from the California secretary of agriculture. Fortunately, once the idea landed on the California Department of Food and Agriculture's desk for this emergency approval, the department sent it back to the commission for more work.

Here's the problem: It is impossible to guarantee that genetically engineered (GE) crops will not contaminate unaltered crops. The biotech industry has such a terrible record of containment that the prestigious National Academy of Sciences issued a report saying that 100 percent containment of foreign DNA in crops is so unlikely that drugs should not be grown in food crops.

Many of us in the rice industry, including farmers, millers, marketers and others, are concerned that the introduction of pharmaceutical rice, which would not be classified as "food," would have serious consequences on our ability to sell California rice. We know the experience other U.S. commodities have had with GE crops. For example, U.S. corn growers have reported $1 billion in lost markets since the introduction of GE corn. A recent study from Iowa State University predicted that wheat farmers would lose 30 percent to 50 percent of their export market if GE wheat were commercialized. The report also predicted a 30 percent price drop with GE wheat introduction. The other day, Monsanto dropped its plans to introduce the biotech seeds.

For a crop such as rice, where exports are 50 percent of sales, the market impacts wheat growers predicted are unacceptable. The California rice industry is heavily dependent upon international trade, and Japan is our largest export customer. Japanese rice importers have clearly and specifically rejected GE rice because the people simply don't want it.

Consider the recent letter sent to the California Rice Commission by the Japanese Rice Retailers Association: "From the viewpoint of rice wholesalers and retailers in Japan, it is certain that the commercialization of GM [genetically modified] rice in the U.S. will evoke a distrust of U.S. rice as a whole among Japanese consumers, since we think that it is practically impossible to guarantee no GM rice contamination in non-GM U.S. rice. As you know, most Japanese consumers react quite negatively to GM crops.

"If the GM rice is actually commercialized in the U.S., we shall strongly request the Japanese government to take necessary measures not to import any California rice to Japan."

The California Rice Commission must listen to what our customers have asked for and consider how genetically engineered crops will impact rice producers and the rural economies in California. A $500 million industry, the livelihoods of thousands of farmers, and the future of rice-growing counties, hangs in the balance. If they choose not to do this, they must be held accountable for their decisions.

The commission will soon meet again to discuss this issue. Californians interested in preserving the strength of our rice industry should let their voices be heard. Before it is too late.

Greg Massa is a fourth-generation rice farmer. He farms 700 acres of rice in Colusa and Glenn counties. He can be reached at eatrice@princetonca.net.

Source: http://www.sacbee.com/content/opinion/story/9288429p-10213313c.html