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Experimental Pharmaceutical Rice May Pose Serious Health and Environmental Hazards

July 21, 2004

Consumer and environmental organizations called on California state agencies today to conduct a rigorous investigation of the potential hazards posed by a biotechnology firm’s plan to produce pharmaceutical drugs from genetically engineered rice.  The potential for contamination of conventional rice and the federal government’s failure to consider such hazards, are at the heart of the groups’ concerns.

“Californians cannot rely on the federal government to protect the state’s consumers, farmers, and environment from the potential harms of this experimental and unproven pharmaceutical rice,” said Dr. Michael Hansen, senior research associate with Consumers Union.  “We urge state authorities to undertake their own investigation because federal agencies have failed to adequately review these concerns.”

In a 22-page report sent to the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA), California Department of Health Services (CDHS), and the California Environmental Protection Agency (Cal-EPA), the groups describe a number of serious, potential health and environmental concerns about Ventria BioScience’s pharmaceutical rice.  The groups are urging California authorities to impose a moratorium on such crops while state agencies conduct an independent review of the controversial proposal.

“While the federal government properly maintains a ‘zero tolerance’ standard for the contamination of food with plant-made pharmaceuticals, they irresponsibly allow these crops to be grown outdoors, which will inevitably lead to unapproved pharmaceuticals adulterating the food supply,” said Bill Freese, research analyst at Friends of the Earth.  “This contradictory federal policy exposes consumers to potential health risks and imperils California’s rice industry.”

The report, prepared by Friends of the Earth, Center for Food Safety, Consumers Union, and Environment California, cites numerous scientific studies to highlight the potential health impacts of Ventria’s pharmaceuticals, which are artificial versions of the human milk proteins lactoferrin, lysozyme, and alpha-1-antirypsin. The potential health impacts described in the report include aggravation of bacterial infections, autoimmune disorders, and allergic reactions that have not been evaluated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (see executive summary).

Ventria was authorized to grow 93 acres of pharmaceutical rice in 2003, the largest reported acreage for any pharmaceutical crop field trial in the nation to date.  Its bid to begin commercial production on 120 acres in southern California this year was temporarily blocked by California and federal authorities.  Ventria did gain permission to plant a smaller plot in the Central Valley, and may re-apply for a larger planting next year.

The pharmaceutical traits of Ventria’s rice could pass to food-grade rice through transport in the guts of birds, flooding, volunteer pharmaceutical rice from unharvested seed sprouting in the following year’s crop, or pollen dispersal by bees or high winds. Numerous experts, including a committee of the National Academy of Sciences, have concluded that total containment of drug traits from pharmaceutical crops cannot be assured.

“We believe that over time the contamination of food grade rice is virtually inevitable,” said Dr. Doug Gurian-Sherman, senior scientist with Center for Food Safety.  “It is absolutely critical for state regulators to assess the potential health and environmental impacts of this controversial pharmaceutical crop before any more is planted.”

The report also describes several potential environmental impacts of Ventria’s pharmaceutical rice, such as the creation of hardier weeds, damage to non-target insects, and disruption of soil ecology. The EPA has not assessed Ventria’s rice despite evidence that its pharmaceutical proteins have pesticidal properties and could disrupt soil ecology. The USDA has not tested for contamination of neighboring fields, nor has it examined the potential for a noxious weed risk from the spread of Ventria’s pharmaceutical traits.

“Given the potential risks and scientific uncertainty surrounding this unproven application of biotechnology, state officials should conduct their own investigation to protect the interests of California’s consumers, farmers, and environment,”  said Dan Jacobsen, legislative director of Environment California.

CONTACT:

Bill Freese, Friends of the Earth:  573-447-1588
Dr. Michael Hansen, Consumers Union:  914-378-2452
Dr. Doug Gurian-Sherman, Center for Food Safety:  202-547-9359
Rebecca Spector, Center for Food Safety:  415-826-2770
Dan Jacobsen, Environment California:  916-446-8062

View Full Report
View Executive Summary