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USDA Approves Rice Containing Human Genes

By March 7, 2007

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No, that's not a hyperbolic headline.

USDA is recommending that California-based Ventria Bioscience be allowed grow this genetically-modified rice on 3,000 acres in Kansas. The rice would be used for pharmaceuticals. Public comment is open until 30 March. (Federal Register Notice - pdf - tip)

Critics cite problems with earlier USDA approved genetically-modified rice and corn projects -- projects that have seen seeds escape into the wild.

[The same day that this rule was announced, USDA] 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.

In August 2006, Japan put a halt to imports of US rice; the UK stopped imports in September.

What happened? LLRICE 601, produced by the German biotech company Bayer, made its way into the food chain: it escaped into the wild. The rice was grown at experimental sites from 1998-2001. It had been engineered to resist a herbicide; it was not "approved for human consumption anywhere in the world."

Last summer, a federal judge in Hawaii ruled that USDA "improperly allowed biotech companies to plant fields of corn and sugar cane that had been engineered to produce pharmaceutical products." Missing from that action: an environmental impact statement.

Back To Today's Story
The WaPo reports that Missouri was ruled out as a test site because "Anheuser-Busch -- the nation's largest rice buyer... threatened to stop buying rice from the state if the deal went through."

There are three strands of rice: two proteins -- lactoferrin and lysozyme -- and serum albumin. The two proteins would be used in anti-diarrhea medicine for children in the developing world, according to Ventria. The albumin might make its way into "health foods such as yogurt and granola bars."

The Daily Mail notes that this "is what may people feared when, ten years ago, food scientists showed what was possible by inserting copies of fish genes from the flounder into tomatoes, to help them withstand frost."

How Much Is 3000 Acres?
One acre is about 1.32 football fields (including the end zone). Try to visualize 2500 contiguous football fields!

If my math* is correct, 3,000 acres = ~4.7 square miles. That's not an experimental sized plot.

What You Can Do
If you support or oppose this rule, supposedly you can comment online by visiting the Federal Government Rulemaking Portal. In the default search form:

  • Select "Department of Agriculture' for the "Agency"
  • Select 'Proposed Rules' for "Document Type."
  • Type the docket number 'APHIS-2007-0006' in the "Keyword / ID" field
  • Or do something similar with the "Advanced Search" - "Docket Search" form (accessible off the horizontal navigation bar.

Hope you have better luck than I did, as only one 2007 rule -- APHIS-2007-0001 -- is currently available for viewing. Be sure to ignore the instructions in the Federal Register -- they describe a search tool that doesn't exist.

Otherwise, postal mail is your friend. From the Federal Register:

Please send four copies of your comment (an original and three copies) to Docket No. APHIS–2007–0006, Regulatory Analysis and Development, PPD APHIS, Station 3A–03.8, 4700 River Road, Unit 118, Riverdale, MD 20737–1238. Please state that your comment refers to Docket No. APHIS– 2007–0006.

Review the Draft Environmental Assessment (pdf) . See special reports on GM food from AgBiotech.Net, The Guardian, New Scientist and Pew Research.

Most Americans support regulation of genetically-modified foods and don't particularly trust biotech firms (or the media). How about you?

* One acre = 43,560 square feet; 3,000 = 1,276,800,000
One square mile = 27,878,400 square feet (5,280*5,280)


March 7, 2007 at 11:39 am
(1) Jennifer Brea says:

Yeah, I saw this story. Maybe history will prove me backwards for thinking this, but my intuition tells me that we should not be so enthusiastic about playing with plant genetics. Just because we can, doesn’t mean we should engineer life…especially when we don’t yet know enough to understand the potential repercussions of our great science.

March 7, 2007 at 1:43 pm
(2) Jess says:

What upsets me most about GMOs is that as a consumer, I don’t get to choose. The most personal, intimate, and basic human function, eating, is out of my control. The food industry will put what they want in my food whether I like it or not, and they refuse to participate in labeling programs so that I can choose not to eat their Franken-food. Ok fine, I’m a neo-luddite for not wanting to eat GMO food, but why not let me chose not to eat it?

March 7, 2007 at 4:27 pm
(3) uspolitics says:

Jen – I agree. Since my first bio/nano-tech conference (1998?)… I’ve said “Just because we can does not mean we _should_.”

And Jess — the UK/EU have more stringent labeling laws than we have in the US. My suggestion — lobby FDA & your elected representatives (state and federal). A lot of the labeling legislation seems to be at the state leve.

March 7, 2007 at 5:48 pm
(4) Deb in Minnesota says:

At one time a farmer could choose if he wanted to plant genetically modified soybeans. It is rapidly approaching the point where that is no longer possible because unmodified beans are not in the marketplace. The result, weeds that are becoming resistant to Roundup. This means a new herbicide will need to be developed. This genie will NOT stay in the bottle. It is time we as consumers DEMAND information regarding the food we eat.

March 9, 2007 at 8:18 am
(5) Allie Glass says:

I am one person who strongly diagrees with genetically modified foods.Where I come from food is practically worshipped.Every aspect of it ,in the orginal manner that it was created.
I had genetically modified Chicken once.it was terrible,it was like chewing rubber and worst part was that it was terribly unhealthy.Genetically altered food pose no solution in our world today i see them as the foundation of great problems that will catch up with us in the future or who knows they might even catch up with an innocent generartion that could do nothing to stop it.
lets all fight and attack the threat that these foods pose

March 11, 2007 at 10:50 am
(6) Peter Collins says:

All life on earth shares highly conserved gene sequences – that is genes that do things so fundamental to all life that they don’t really change. “Normal” rice undoubtedly contains some genes that are present and functioning in you.

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