The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

Plan to Plant Gene-Modified Rice Alarms Interest Groups

by Megan Tady

Apr. 27, 2007 – A government agency is currently weighing a controversial proposal to allow a biotechnology company to plant up to 3,200 acres of rice genetically modified to treat diarrhea.

In February, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) released an Environmental Assessment on the company Ventria Bioscience’s petition to field test the rice in Kansas this spring, finding the proposal did not pose threats to the environment. The public comment period on the Assessment closed last month, and advocates expect the decision to come soon.

Environmental and food-safety advocates, citing concerns over potential public health and environmental impacts, urged the USDA to reject the field-test permitand to impose a moratorium against Ventria conducting further human experimentation.

The company has introduced modified human genes into the rice in order to produce the milk proteins lactoferrin and lysozyme under the trade names Lactiva and Lysomin. Ventria, which has already tested the genetically engineered (GE) rice on children in Peru, wants to use the proteins produced by the rice to treat infants suffering from diarrhea. The company has also proposed to use the protein as supplements in yogurts, meal-replacement bars and beverages, granola bars and sports drinks for the general population.

Dr. William Greenough, professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins University, called the GE rice a "Holy Grail" in a press release put out by Ventria. "We’d like to have something that both hydrated people and could shorten the illness [of diarrhea]," he said. "That is what every mother would want for their child."

"USDA regulation is not nearly adequate or strong enough to prevent unapproved [GE] crops from getting into the food supply."

The Center for Food Safety (CFS), which released a report this week about Ventria’s GE rice, is concerned that the products could have adverse health effects. Neither Lysomin or Lactiva have been approved as safe for human consumption by the Food and Drug Administration. Ventria is not required to get approval from the FDA, however, which only monitors genetically engineered plants when manufacturers voluntarily submit to an approval process.

CFS also worries that pollen from the GE crops, or the plants themselves, will contaminate surrounding soil and other crops, including food grown for humans. As reported by The NewStandard last August, a different strain of GE rice unapproved for human consumption contaminated US commercial long-grain rice supplies. In March, the USDA announced another occurrence of commercial rice contamination with GE rice.

"This Ventria trial is particularly a great concern because of these episodes of widespread contamination of rice with unapproved [GE] rice variety," Bill Freese, science policy analyst for CFS, told TNS. "What it shows is that USDA regulation is not nearly adequate or strong enough to prevent unapproved [GE] crops from getting into the food supply."

The non-profit Union of Concerned Scientists joined CFS in opposing Ventria’s permit request, and called into question the validity of the USDA’s environmental assessment (EA).The EA is used to determine whether a more in-depth environmental-impact statement is needed, or whether a permit should be issued.

The Union of Concerned Scientists blasted the EA report, saying the USDA never considered how weather would impact the potential to disseminate the GE seeds,failed to consider contamination during seed production and transport, and did not reveal the acreage of the planting to the public.

In its comments to the USDA in March, the group urged the agency to "ban the outdoor production of all pharma food crops."

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The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

Megan Tady is a staff journalist.

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