Brewer would boycott Mo. over biopharm rice

Engineered crops produce human proteins that can make drugs at lowered costs.
Wednesday, April 13, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 8:24 a.m. CDT, Sunday, June 22, 2008

WASHINGTON — Anheuser-Busch Cos., the nation’s No. 1 buyer of rice as well as its largest brewer, says it won’t buy rice from Missouri if genetically modified, drug-making crops are allowed to be grown in the state.

The St. Louis-based beer giant, which says it is concerned about possible contamination, is the latest company to express concern over plans by Ventria Biosciences to grow 200 acres of rice engineered to produce human proteins that can make drugs.

Biotechnology firms have been seeking federal approval for outdoor plantings, often called biopharming because the idea is to lower drug-making costs by using plants to grow medications.

Other food companies, environmentalists and farmers have said they fear genetically altered rice could cross-pollinate with other food crops, introducing the foreign genes into the regular food chain.

Last month, Arkansas-based Riceland Foods Inc., the world’s largest rice miller and marketer, asked federal regulators to deny a permit for Ventria’s project, saying its customers don’t want to risk buying genetically modified rice. Anheuser-Busch is thought to be the first major company to threaten a boycott over the issue, according to comments filed last month with the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“Given the potential for contamination of commercial rice production in this state, we will not purchase any rice produced or processed in Missouri if Ventria introduces its pharma rice here,” Jim Hoffmeister, a vice president at Anheuser-Busch, said Tuesday.

Scott Deeter, president of Sacramento-based Ventria, called Anheuser-Busch’s threat “totally irresponsible” and said fears of contamination are overblown. He cited Ventria’s plans to use “a totally closed system of production” with a plant that pollinates itself and is separated geographically from any other crop.

Biopharming has been growing for a decade despite continued attacks from genetic engineering foes who fear such work has not been studied enough to ensure the safety of the nation’s food supply if accidental mixing occurs.

Genetically modified crops are regulated by the USDA, with state governments allowed to review safety procedures and suggest more stringent regulation of the companies before a permit is issued.

Since 1995, the USDA has approved more than 300 biopharming plantings around the country, though most are for small outdoor plots of less than acre each. If Ventria’s application is approved, it would be the largest such growth site to date, USDA spokeswoman Karen Eggert said. No human drug made from genetically engineered crops has been approved for commercial use.

Meanwhile, farmers in southeast Missouri, where nearly all of the state’s $100 million rice crop is grown, have presented Missouri’s agriculture director a petition with 175 signatures opposing the plans. Missouri is the sixth-largest rice-producing state.

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