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USDA Backs Production of Rice With Human Genes

The company is also talking to the Food and Drug Administration about putting the proteins into health foods. Its third variety of rice makes serum albumin, a blood protein used in medical therapies.

Until now, plants with human genes have been restricted to small test plots. In October, Ventria sought permission to grow its rice commercially on as many as 3,200 acres in Geary County, Kan., starting with 450 acres this spring.

A previous plan to grow the rice in southern Missouri was dropped when beermaker Anheuser-Busch -- the nation's largest rice buyer, which has expressed concern about the safety and consumer acceptance of gene-altered rice -- threatened to stop buying rice from the state if the deal went through.

Because no other rice is grown in Kansas and because rice can grow only in flooded areas, the risk of escape or cross-fertilization with other rice plants is nil there, Deeter said. The company will mill virtually all the seeds on site -- using dedicated equipment -- to minimize the risk of seeds getting mistakenly released or sold.

On Wednesday, the Agriculture Department published its draft environmental assessment, which concluded that the project posed no undue risks. The public can comment until March 30.

Also on Wednesday, the agency revealed that a type of rice seed in Arkansas had become contaminated with a different variety of genetically engineered rice, LL62, that was never released for marketing. The error was discovered in the course of an ongoing investigation into the widespread contamination of U.S. rice by yet another gene-altered variety, LL601, which has seriously disrupted rice exports.

Those problems, along with the previous discovery of unapproved, gene-altered StarLink corn in food and the accidental release of crops that had been engineered to make a vaccine for pig diarrhea, undermine the USDA's credibility, critics said.

"USDA's record is not good," Rissler said, pointing to several recent court judgments against the department and a December 2005 inspector general report that savaged the department for its poor oversight of biotechnology. "We don't think they can enforce even the inadequate system that is in place."


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