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Environmental groups Wednesday called for a statewide ban of genetically
engineered crops designed to produce pharmaceuticals, saying they pose too
many risks for food safety and the environment, July 2004 by Judy Silber .
In a report sent to the California Department of Health Services, the
California Environmental Protection Agency and the California Department of
Food and Agriculture, the groups requested a thorough review of two
pharmaceutical-producing rice varieties made by Sacramento-based Ventria
Bioscience. Ventria has been growing biotech rice in California since 1997.
"We believe a prudent approach is called for to protect the interests of
California consumers and farmers," read the report issued by Friends of the
Earth, Consumers Union and the Center for Food Safety.
The report follows a controversy that broke out earlier this year when
Ventria applied to federal and state agencies to plant 120 acres of its two
Environmentalists and rice farmers strongly objected, saying the threat of
contamination was high and would devastate California's $500 million rice
industry. If granted the permits, the company intended to expand production
of two varieties of rice that produce the human proteins lactoferrin and
lysozyme. Extracted from the plants, the company says the proteins can serve
as drugs to treat diarrhea and anemia.
This was the first year Ventria needed the state's permission in addition to
a permit from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Before, it had only
required federal permits because California only reviews new rice varieties
if more than 50 acres are planted. Ventria's application was initially
approved by a state rice advisory board but later denied by the California
Department of Food and Agriculture. As it turns out, the USDA also denied
the company's request this year. Ventria is only growing 1 acre of the rice
crops in 2004, according to the environmentalists' report.
Still, the company can reapply next year for another permit, said Bill
Freese, a research analyst for Friends of the Earth. "The amount of these
varieties of rice have been growing since 1997," Freese said. He pointed out
that Ventria planted only 6 acres in 1999 compared with 93 acres of the two
varieties in 2003. "It's time to put a stop to it," he said.
Until state agencies carry out a thorough review, the environmental groups
urged California regulators to ban not only the rice but also all
bioengineered crops designed to produce pharmaceuticals.
A spokesman at the Department of Food and Agriculture said he had not yet
seen the environmentalists' report. Regardless, the agency does not have the
authority to ban biotech crops, he said.
"It's federal jurisdiction in our view that applies," said Steve Lyle,
department spokesman. Responsibility for regulating biotech crops lies with
the U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Food and Drug Administration, he
Ventria could not be reached for comment. Lisa Dry, a spokeswoman for the
Biotechnology Industry Organization, defended the regulatory process for the
"These field trials are all heavily regulated," Dry said. "Before the
permits are issued, the planting protocol is examined very carefully to
evaluate the degree of risk."
But the environmentalists' report said state action is required because
federal oversight is inadequate. The FDA does not consider the potential
human health impacts due to contamination of rice consumed as food. The U.S.
Environmental Protection Agency hasn't examined potential harmful
disruptions to soil ecology. Nor has the USDA looked at whether gene
transfer from biotech rice to other, related plants has occurred, the report
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