Even in the Monsanto-state of Missouri, and with the local university and local politcal representatives busy selling their souls to the industry, Ventria still face a nightmare of setbacks and resistance.

Firm races against clock to plant rice in Missouri
Bill Lambrecht
Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON - The government's rules for permits and nature's rules for planting may combine to nip in the bud a quest to sprout pharmaceutical crops in Missouri.

Missouri political leaders are pressing the Agriculture Department to shorten its permit review so a California company can sow pharmaceutical rice in Missouri yet this spring. But the Agriculture Department has given no indication that it will relent, a threat both to the project at hand and to Missouri's hopes to establish itself as a leader in converting croplands to factories for drugs.

The company, Ventria Bioscience, agreed April 15 to find a site for its pharmaceutical rice at least 120 miles from southeast Missouri's rice-growing lands. In return, Anheuser-Busch Cos. Inc. said it would continue to purchase Missouri-grown rice, which the brewery had threatened to boycott if Ventria planted in the Bootheel.

Ventria's rice is far from conventional: It is genetically engineered to produce human proteins that could be used in medicines and other products.

The prospect of this specially engineered rice becoming commingled with edible rice troubled the brewery, as it does rice-growers, environmental advocates and much of the nation's food industry.

After spending five months reviewing Ventria's initial proposals, the Agriculture Department said last week that winning approval of a new or hastily amended application would not be a simple matter.

Karen Eggert, a spokeswoman for the Agriculture Department unit that oversees permits, said a new environmental assessment and public comment period could require a month or more - which could take Ventria beyond the limits of rice-planting season in Missouri.

Last week, Gov. Matt Blunt appealed to Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns to expedite government review, said Jessica Robinson, a spokeswoman for Blunt.

"We're very, very hopeful that it happens," she said.

Ventria encountered the same trouble in California a year ago when it was forced, under pressure from rice-growers, to move its planting site far from commercial rice fields and then ran out of time to win a federal permit.

"Deja vu all over again," remarked Ventria president Scott Deeter.

Deeter said Ventria was still mulling over potential new sites in southwest and northwest Missouri that he declined to identify. But his company has concluded, Deeter said, that the pharmaceutical rice would need to be planted by May 20 to have enough time for its 155-day growing season.

"We're trying to figure out what the path forward looks like for us," he said.

Ventria recently obtained a federal permit for growing its engineered rice on five acres in North Carolina, a far smaller project than the initial 200-acre planting envisioned in Missouri.

Ventria's rice is engineered to produce lactoferrin and lysozyme, two proteins that occur in breast milk, saliva and bodily fluids. The proteins are effective in combating bacteria, viruses, funguses and parasites; the company has said they could be especially valuable in fighting the diarrhea that commonly afflicts children in developing countries.

Critics worry that the pharmaceutical rice will become commingled with edible rice, a threat both to food and to continued exports to countries that that harbor a deep distrust of genetic engineering.

Missouri connection

Ventria's setbacks are especially troublesome on the campus of Northwest Missouri State University, which was instrumental in bringing the company to Missouri and rallying Missouri's political leaders behind the project.

Ventria and Northwest Missouri State, in Maryville, Mo., signed an agreement in November calling for the university to build and equip a $30 million plant-sciences center in Maryville that will house Ventria and perhaps other companies.

Ventria agreed to move its operations from Sacramento to Maryville. The university received a 4 percent share in Ventria. And university president Dean Hubbard helped raise $5 million in venture capital from private sources, money that the company already has received.

Hubbard said last week that he envisions putting his university on the ground floor of a new technology while at the same time helping Missouri farmers add value to their crops.

"My goal is to transform the rural economy and also to provide unique educational opportunities," he said.

Hubbard, who has since became a Ventria board member, said he is disappointed in the growing possibility that Ventria will miss Missouri's window for rice-planting this season. He said he felt guilty for suggesting initially that Ventria plant in the Bootheel, where an uprising by rice growers led to Anheuser-Busch's threatened boycott.

But Hubbard said that his university's relationship with Ventria will continue, as will plans to break ground in the coming weeks on what will be called the Center of Excellence in Plant-Made Pharmaceuticals.

Meanwhile, Ventria will work to engineer rice suitable to the soils of northwest Missouri rather than the prime rice-growing region of the Bootheel, he said.

"You just have to face the facts," he said. "It's too bad that the farmers take the hit again and that the growers in southeast Missouri passed up this opportunity."

Bill Freese, a Washington-based analyst for Friends of the Earth, said shortening the permit review process "would compromise the Agriculture Department's credibility in regulating these pharmaceutical crops." He said his advocacy group has asked that a 30-day public comment period for such permits remain the policy.

Sen. Christopher "Kit" Bond, R-Mo., said that in standing up for Ventria and the university, Missouri had demonstrated its support for biotechnology and sound science.

"We're not driving the boat," he said. "We have urged everybody to look at it to see if they (Ventria) can meet all their requirements. We would love to see it get done. But we want to make sure any time we're dealing with something like this that the regulatory agencies carry out their responsibilities."

Reporter Bill Lambrecht of the Post-Dispatch's Washington bureau covers environmental issues and national politics.

Reporter Bill Lambrecht
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