SAN FRANCISCO – A tiny biosciences company is developing a promising drug to fight diarrhea, a scourge among babies in the developing world, but it has made an astonishing number of powerful enemies because it grows the experimental drug in rice genetically engineered with a human gene.
Environmental groups, corporate food interests and thousands of farmers across the country have succeeded in chasing Ventria Bioscience’s rice farms out of two states. And critics continue to complain that Ventria is recklessly plowing ahead with a mostly untested technology that threatens the safety of conventional crops grown for food.
“We just want them to go away,” said Bob Papanos of the U.S. Rice Producers Association. “This little company could cause major problems.”
Ventria, with 16 employees, practices “biopharming,” the most contentious segment of agricultural biotechnology because its adherents essentially operate open-air drug factories by splicing human genes into crops to produce proteins that can be turned into medicines.
Ventria’s rice produces two human proteins found in mother’s milk, saliva and tears, which help people hydrate and lessen the severity and duration of diarrhea attacks, a top killer of children in developing countries.
But farmers, environmentalists and others fear that such medicinal crops will mix with conventional crops, making them unsafe to eat.
The company says the chance of its genetically engineered rice ending up in the food supply is remote because the company grinds the rice and extracts the protein before shipping. What’s more, rice is “self-pollinating,” and it’s virtually impossible for genetically engineered rice to accidentally cross breed with conventional crops.
“We use a contained system,” Ventria Chief Executive Scott Deeter said.
Regardless, U.S. rice farmers in particular fear that important overseas customers in lucrative, biotechnology-averse countries like Japan will shun U.S. crops if biopharming is allowed to proliferate. Exports account for 50 percent of the rice industry’s $1.18 billion in annual sales.
Japanese consumers, like those in Western Europe, are still alarmed by past mad cow disease outbreaks mishandled by their governments, making them deeply skeptical of any changes to their food supply, including genetically engineered crops.
Rice interests in California drove Ventria’s experimental work out of the state in 2004, after Japanese customers said they wouldn’t buy the rice if Ventria were allowed to set up shop.
Anheuser-Busch Inc. and Riceland Foods Inc., the world’s largest rice miller, were among the corporate interests that pressured the company to abandon plans to set up a commercial-scale farm in Missouri’s rice belt last year.
But Ventria was undeterred. The company, which has its headquarters in Sacramento, finally landed near Greenville, N.C. In March it received U.S. Department of Agriculture clearance to expand its operation there from 70 acres to 335 acres. Ventria is hoping to get regulatory clearance this year to market its diarrhea-fighting protein powder.
There has been little resistance from corporate and farming interest in eastern North Carolina. But the company’s work has raised the hackles of environmentalists there.
“The issue is the growing of pharmaceutical products in food crops grown outdoors,” said Hope Shand of the environmental nonprofit ETC Group in Carrboro, N.C. “The chance this will contaminate traditionally grown crops is great. This is a very risky business.”
Deeter points out that there aren’t any commercial rice growers in North Carolina, although the USDA did allow Ventria to grow its controversial crop about a half-mile from a government “rice station,” where new strains are tested. The USDA has since moved that station to Beltsville, Md., though an agency spokeswoman said the relocation had nothing to do with Ventria.
The company, meanwhile, has applied to the Food and Drug Administration to approve the protein powder as a “medical food” rather than a drug. That means Ventria wouldn’t have to conduct long and costly human tests. Instead, it submitted data from scientific experts attesting to the company’s powder is “generally regarded as safe.”
Earlier this month, a Peruvian scientist sponsored by Ventria presented data at the Pediatric Academics Societies meeting in San Francisco. It showed children hospitalized in Peru with serious diarrhea attacks recovered quicker – 3.67 days versus 5.21 days – if the dehydration solution they were fed contained the powder.
Ventria’s chief executive said he hopes to have an approval this year and envisions a $100 million annual market in the United States. Deeter forecasts a $500 million market overseas, especially in developing countries where diarrhea is a top killer of children under the age of 5. The World Health Organization reports that nearly 2 million children succumb to diarrhea each year.
But overcoming consumer skepticism and regulatory concerns about feeding babies with products derived from genetic engineering is a tall order. This is especially true in the face of continued opposition to biopharming from the Grocery Manufacturers Association of America, which represents food, beverage and consumer products companies with combined U.S. sales of $460 billion.
Ventria hopes to add its protein powder to existing infant products. There is no requirement to label any food products in the United States as containing genetically engineered ingredients.
The company also has ambitious plans to add its product to infant formula, a $10 billion-a-year market, even though the major food manufacturers have so far shown little interest in using genetically engineered ingredients. But Deeter says Ventria can win over the manufacturers and consumers by showing the company’s products are beneficial.
“For children who are weaning, for instance, these two proteins have enormous potential to help their development,” Deeter said. “Breast-fed babies are healthier and these two proteins are a big reason why.”
On the Net:
U.S. Rice Producers Association: http://www.usriceproducers.com/