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If pharma-rice planted: Brewer may not buy Bootheel rice

If, as planned, Ventria Bioscience's pharmaceutical rice varieties are planted in the Missouri Bootheel, Anheuser Busch has announced it won't buy any rice grown or processed in the state. Anheuser Busch is the largest domestic consumer of rice.

Ventria, a small biotech company, recently moved from California to Missouri, where it plans to grow 150 acres of two rice varieties containing human genes.

The nearest food-grade rice field will be 7 miles distant, but that hasn't stopped fears of cross-contamination through flooding, birds, insects or human error. Contamination is a concern because the Federal Drug Administration has yet to approve any pharmaceutical crop for human consumption.

Since Ventria's intentions were revealed late last year, rice farmers in the Bootheel have expressed concerns that markets would react negatively. Now, those farmers have hard evidence to strengthen those worries.

On the evening of April 7, Anheuser Busch executives met with Missouri Department of Agriculture (DOA) officials in St. Louis where the “no buy” warning was given. While Busch officials didn't comment publicly before presstime, Delta Farm Press spoke with several farmers who attended the meeting.

“Eight farmers, seven Busch officials and several state politicians and ag officials were there,” said Paul Combs, a Bootheel farmer on the USA Rice Federation's board of directors.

“The Busch folks asked the Missouri DOA director to explain where the state was on this issue. The director said while it was still in the USDA permitting process, the state had been in contact with scientists around the world talking about the value of plant-made pharmaceuticals (PMPs).

“He went on and on about Ventria's growing protocols and the like. In the end, he said the state would give Ventria permission to plant their rice and the state is supportive of the PMP industry and concept.”

At that point, said Combs, Busch executives admitted transgenic crops are here to stay and the company isn't opposed to the health benefits such crops could provide.

“But then they hit on their big point: this PMP isn't regarded as safe for the food industry.

“They drew a distinction between herbicide-tolerant crops and PMPs. Busch's senior executive said, ‘We aren't trying to tell the state what to do. But if Ventria goes forward, we won't purchase any rice either grown or processed in the state of Missouri.’

“He said because it's not regarded as safe, Busch would have to recall products if this PMP rice accidentally found its way (into food grade). He made it clear it would cost the company big in terms of money and brand image… Busch was very careful with the wording of their statement. They want nothing to do with Ventria.”

Jason Bean, a central-Bootheel rice farmer and USA Rice Federation board member, was also at the meeting and backs up Comb's account.

“The Busch officials basically said Ventria's rice is too new to be accepted in their markets,” said Bean. “It's a GMO, but we're not talking about herbicide tolerance or Bt — we're talking a medicinal crop. Those things are very different, and I don't know if our state politicians and leaders understand those differences. All GMOs aren't created equal.”

One of the farmers at the meeting — a proponent of Ventria — brought up LibertyLink rice, said Combs. “Busch had brought a scientist along. He said, ‘Whoa! That's a very different issue. You're talking about herbicide-tolerant rice versus pharmaceutical rice.’

“Because of GMO labeling issues, Busch could have a problem with LibertyLink rice being used in beer going to the European Union. But there's no recall issue on LibertyLink in the United States like there is with Ventria.”

As a result of their early stand, Bean said his respect for Anheuser Busch has increased tremendously.

“You know, they could have waited to announce this. They could have held their tongues until July 15, when my rice crop was already planted and growing. Now, we know and I appreciate them telling us this early.”

Bean suspects Busch's warning is the first of many to come. “This is the tip of the iceberg. Surely Post and Kellogg's and the rest will fall in with them. None of those companies can take the risk of recall and everything that means. And farmers can't risk the markets either.”

What does that mean? “It means,” said Bean, “that I normally plant 750 acres. If Ventria's field is allowed to be planted, my intended rice acres for the year will be zero. I can't afford to take the risk — and I'm in favor of biotechnology! I believe in it. I raise 100 percent biotech soybeans and cotton. About half my corn is Bt. How many times do we have to say ‘It's about the markets! It's about the markets!’ before the state leadership finally hears us?”

Anheuser Busch's refusal to buy rice processed in the state opens up a new set of issues, said Combs. “Riceland may say, ‘We can supply Busch with rice from the mill in Stuttgart (Ark.).’ But that means Riceland has to take protections to prevent Missouri rice from reaching Arkansas mills.

“I farm in the very southern region of the Bootheel. We deliver a lot of rice to Arkansas: Jonesboro and Osceola. Now that Busch has said what they have — and you've got to figure Gerber and cereal makers and everyone else will say the same — Riceland may insist that Missouri farmers must deliver only to Missouri facilities. Not only can Riceland not bring Missouri rice into Arkansas and sell it to Busch, they can't ship Arkansas rice to New Madrid and mill it there for Busch either.”

Both farmers say the vast majority of Bootheel farmers are against the Ventria project.

“In terms of how many farmers are for and against this, I think it's every bit of 95 percent opposed,” said Combs. “I may be off a little, but those opposed are a huge majority.”

Combs said he “naively believed” Busch's announcement would cause Missouri state officials to reconsider Ventria's plans.

“I'm very frustrated. What is the state doing? For months Riceland Foods has been warning that buyers think Ventria is a problem. Now, the largest domestic consumer proves that warning was legitimate. And yet we're still going forward? What part of ‘no’ does the state not understand? They must be planning to wait out the markets — and maybe they can without going belly up. But farmers haven't got 10 years to wait for the markets to catch up.”

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