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Kansas trying to lure California biotech rice firm

WICHITA, Kan. - A biotechnology firm that abandoned plans to grow biotech rice in California and Missouri amid protests by farmers and others in those states is now being courted by Kansas.

Ventria Bioscience, a small Sacramento, Calif.-based firm, expects to decide in about a month whether it will relocate its processing plant and rice acreage to Kansas, said Ventria president Scott Deeter.

Biopharming is the practice of growing food crops genetically engineered with human genes to produce drugs. Ventria's rice is used to make an experimental U.S. drug to treat diarrhea.

"We are in the process of expanding our production - and Kansas is on the short list for that expansion," Deeter said. "We haven't made a decision yet, but we are coming very close."

The other state on its short list is North Carolina, where the firm already grows 335 acres of its genetically modified rice, he said.

Leading efforts to lure Ventria here is Kansas Secretary of Agriculture Adrian Polansky and Gov. Kathleen Sebelius. Polansky first learned of the biotech opportunity after meeting Deeter six months ago at an international biotechnology meeting in Chicago.

Since then, economic development officials from several northeast Kansas communities have been quietly building support among the state's major farm organizations while putting together economic incentive packages to lure Ventria.

"We don't often get opportunities that are very beneficial to production agriculture, to our communities in Kansas and also tie to real benefits in this case to providing health care at a lower cost," Polansky said. "To me, it is a very exciting opportunity."

Some scientists aren't so sure, and fear the technology could threaten the safety of conventional food crops by inadvertently mixing with them. While it may be an advantage to grow pharmaceutical rice in a state like Kansas with no commercial rice production, it's still a "bad idea" to produce pharmaceutical compounds in food, said Jane Rissler, a senior scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists.

"This is not agricultural production - this is drug production," Rissler said. "This is pharmaceutical production and pharmaceutical production in food plants should be discouraged."

Ventria hopes to eventually grow 30,000 acres of rice in the state, possibly in five to six years, Polansky said. It would guarantee Kansas growers a profit of between $150 and $200 per acre above their current best economic crop. That would be $6 million a year of added income to Kansas farmers, Polansky said.

"It is an opportunity to grow a different crop that is a little more profitable than what we have been growing," said Steve Baccus, an Ottawa County farmer and president of the Kansas Farm Bureau. "We don't grow rice, but agronomically they tell us there is no reason we can't grow it here. It has just never been done."

Ventria would bring its research and processing facility to the state, creating significant paying jobs, Polansky said.

Rissler is skeptical, and cited a report last year from Robert Wisner, an economics professor at Iowa State University, that concluded that market forces will drive down farmer compensation. It said the acreage needed for bioengineered crops is so small, only a few farms would benefit.

"We certainly would urge the state folks to take a closer look at whether there will be benefits for the state," she said.

Deeter said that wherever the company decides to relocate, it plans to initially grow just a few hundred acres of the biotech rice and expand that as it develops products.

The only Kansas community to go public so far with its recruitment efforts is Topeka, where economic development officials have put together a $2.25 million incentive package to locate the processing plant and acreage in Shawnee County. But other Kansas communities, which neither Polansky or Ventria would identify, have also pitched proposals to Ventria.

All are located along the Kansas River Valley and the Missouri River Valley where the soils and water availability make it viable to productively grow rice, Polansky said.

Kansas grows no rice - and as far as researchers can determine has never grown rice - and the state doesn't even have wild rice, Polansky said. That's a key consideration since most of the opposition to biotech rice in other states has come from rice farmers worried the genetically engineered rice would affect their markets.

Little to no opposition has surfaced in Kansas so far. Deeter said Kansas is sophisticated when it comes to biotech crops, noting many of its soybeans and corn are genetically modified.

The first thing state officials had to do, however, was make sure rice would actually grow in Kansas.

Ventria did grow a successful plot of a rice in northwest Missouri two years ago when it was looking at Missouri as a possible location. Kansas officials believe the firm will have the same success just west of the state line.

To make sure, the Kansas Department of Agriculture has researched whether the state has the water, soils and growing season to grow rice. They believe it does, Polansky said. In Arkansas, the water needs for rice were similar to corn. Rice needed just one inch more of rain than corn to grow successfully.

"We believe that would pretty closely mirror the Kansas situation," Polansky said.

The crop is self-pollinating and would be grown under Agriculture Department supervision. Storage bins dedicated to rice would be kept near the fields where it is grown, Polansky said. The rice would be ground before it was moved to the processing facility, he said.

© Copyright 2006 The Kansas City Star

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