The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is close to approving a request to grow up to 3,200 acres of genetically engineered (GE) pharmaceutical rice. The rice, developed by California-based Ventria BioScience, is set to be grown and processed in Kansas, after the company was chased out of other states, including Monsanto's stomping grounds, Missouri, and Ventria's home-state, California. Ventria has developed three varieties of rice, each engineered with a different modified human gene to produce one of three recombinant human proteins. Two of them -- lactoferrin and lysozyme -- are bacteria-fighting compounds similar to natural versions found in breast milk and saliva. The third makes recombinant serum albumin, a blood protein used in medical therapies.
Drug-producing food crops grown out-of-doors pose great risks to public health and the economic well-being of farmers because they are likely to contaminate the food supply. In fact, while Southern rice growers were still reeling from last year's contamination of long-grain rice with an unapproved GE variety, a second variety of rice was found to be contaminated with a second unapproved GE line this month, throwing the rice market into further turmoil. As a result, Southern rice growers are facing a severe shortage of uncontaminated seed for planting this spring. Incredibly, USDA appears poised to approve Ventria's request even though the pharmaceutical substances in Ventria's drug-producing rice have not been approved by the FDA.