Flashback: The Genetically Modified Rice Made with Human Genes

Flashback: The Genetically Modified Rice Made with Human Genes

DNA strandAn article published in 2007 entitled “The rice with human genes” would report on the first genetically modified crop containing human genes. Years later, genetically manipulated animals would fill the headlines throughout all major news media outlets. Genetically modified foods have gone mainstream, dominating much of the agricultural market. In the wake of the so-called defeat of Proposition 37, it’s eerie looking back on this 2007 Mail Online article on the “world’s first” genetically modified food crop containing human genes: rice made with human genes.

Made with three synthetic human proteins found in breast milk and saliva, the California-based developers, Ventria, claimed that its GM rice could reduce death in developing regions of the world where children die of diarrhea-related dehydration. Ventria used a study in Peru, in which children with severe diarrhea recovered more quickly if they ingested salty fluids containing the proteins in question, to galvanize its argument.

Of course, Ventria funded that same study, and one of the top scientists faced a criminal investigation and a professional ethics complaint for feeding infants genetically modified material, which was at the time not approved “in any nation, not even in the country of origin, the United States.” Although accusations against the study were called alarmist in 2006 through 2007, these cries against GM food seem not so exaggerated now, when they are all but ubiquitous in our food chain and daily lives.

GM Effects on People, Animals, and the Planet

“It is unwise to produce drugs in plants outdoors,” policy advocacy group Union of Concerned Scientists warned Ventria. “There would be little control over the doses people might get exposed to, and some might be allergic to the proteins.”

Ventria chief executive Scott Deeter had contrasting views, claiming that concerns about the safety and contamination of their product were “based on perception, not reality.”

(Fast-forward to 2012, when farmers launched a landmark lawsuit against Monsanto for widespread contamination of organic crops with GMOs. As much as 93 percent of soybeans are now GM.)

GM Doesn’t Solve Problems

Ventria also claimed that their genetically modified rice could save up to two million children annually. Similar arguments are made daily by Monsanto and Bill Gates, who have teamed up to make developing regions grow GM food.

While studies are ongoing, it’s becoming increasingly clear that GM crop production increases the use of devastatingly toxic pesticides and herbicides and decreases yield over time, not least of all thanks to nutrient depletion of the soil and pollution of water and local areas.

Effects on people and animals—the farmers who apply the pesticides; the locals and animals who drink the local, polluted water; and the consumers who eat the food—look grim as well.

The Biotech Industry Doesn’t Want What You Want

Nevertheless, in 2007, the US Department of Agriculture gave Ventria the go-ahead to begin growing in Kansas, saying the genetically modified rice posed “virtually no risk.” That wasn’t enough for Anheuser-Busch when Ventria first proposed growing in Missouri; the avid rice buyer threatened to boycott Missouri, citing fears of contamination and consumer response.

“Plants are phenomenal factories,” Deeter said in a deceptively humble statement. “Our raw materials are the sun, soil, and water.”

Friends of the Earth campaigner Clare Oxborrow’s warning makes a fitting response: “Using food crops and fields as glorified drug factories is a very worrying development.”