The California Rice Commission voted six to five last week to approve the nation’s first commercial-scale planting of a crop genetically engineered to produce drug compounds.Plans by California-based Ventria Bioscience to grow rice containing human proteins mark a major step toward fulfilling some promises of biotechnology by using plants to cheaply produce drugs.
Thanks to the decision, Ventria will expand production this spring under some of the strictest crop safeguards in the nation. Its rice produces common human proteins that could be used in oral rehydration products to treat severe diarrhea. The company is seeking approval from the FDA before the proteins are sold in a commercial product.
The possibility of a large-scale planting of genetically engineered rice this spring has galvanized a band of growers who oppose genetically engineered rice, as well as state and national groups that are trying to limit the spread of GE crops. These growers and their supporters argue that drugs should not be grown in food crops and that allowing drugs in rice threatens to undermine years of marketing California rice around the world. Consumers in many countries have rejected genetically engineered crops and are especially worried about the accidental mixing of food crops and pharmaceutical crops.