Herbst didn't see rice storm brewing

Editor's Note: The following article was written before Ventria BioScience decided to abandon plans for growing genetically modified rice in the Missouri Bootheel this season. The firm is now reportedly considering options for moving production to the southeast.

When he agreed to be first, David Herbst had no clue he'd ushered a storm into the Bootheel's rice country. His decision to grow 150 acres of genetically modified rice for Ventria Bioscience seemed a no-brainer — something other farmers would see the value-added benefit of. Even today, after months of accusations and derision, the man who runs Tierney Farms in Chaffee, Mo., is perplexed at fellow farmers' reactions.

“It surprised me,” he said. “When someone uses fear as a deterrent, that's something I can't address scientifically. If someone said, ‘I'm worried about pollen,’ I can point them to studies and science (showing Ventria's rice won't cause problems). However, it's very difficult to address fear.”

Fear and education

And there's plenty of fear among his fellow rice growers: mostly fear that with pharmaceutical rice in the neighborhood, markets will be lost. Herbst isn't deaf to the charge and said it's a legitimate one.

“But we all need to educate the buyers instead of scaring them. And we can educate these markets! Let's make sure the buyers know there's going to be a 7-mile buffer area, that there will be a 50-foot fallow area, and that there will be three full-time Ventria employees caring for these 150 acres. The buyers need to know the rice will be worked on by dedicated equipment, that it'll be milled where it's grown and won't be in a truck running up and down the roads.

“And let's let everyone know: if you want specialty rice grown, the Missouri Bootheel should be the first place you look at. Let's do that rather than go out there scaring the hell out of them saying, ‘GM rice! GM rice!’

“I'm just a catalyst. Farmers have talked about value-added crops forever. This is an opportunity to work with the epitome of value-added.”

In late March, Riceland Foods and Anheuser Busch both released letters against Ventria's move to the Bootheel. Herbst said the companies — especially Riceland — have a role to play in helping markets overcome jitters.

“Who has the contacts and financial reserves they have to get the word out? And if (Ventria's rice acreage expands), who better than Riceland to build a mini mill and participate in the project and marketing? This doesn't have to be an antagonistic relationship between Ventria (or other GM companies) and Riceland. This shouldn't be looked at as competition, but as an opportunity for farmers to exploit.”

On Herbst's farm, Ventria plans to grow rice containing human proteins that occur in saliva, mother's milk and tears. Whenever the rice is cooked, the protein breaks down. So, unless one is eating raw rice, “you couldn't ingest that protein anyway. And even if you did eat the protein, it's completely safe.”

Among other potential benefits, cancer researchers are currently looking at the efficacy of lactoferrin — one of the proteins in Ventria's rice.

“Someone may ask why, if this protein is already available, do you need to get it from Ventria's rice? Well, the biggest reason is economics. We can grow lactoferrin for a mere fraction of what it costs to obtain it by other means.”

Herbst is well-spoken and well-informed. He knows the minutiae of Ventria's fledgling Bootheel plans and talks of them energetically.

Do no harm

First, though, he wants it known that he has every incentive to do no harm.

Raised in Columbia, Mo., Herbst spent childhood summers on the farm. His grandfather owned the place and the plan was always for Herbst to take over some day. That day came in 1990, when his grandfather was diagnosed with terminal cancer.

“When I got the call, I was at Baylor University ready to begin my junior year. He said, ‘They tell me I've got a year to live. If you want to farm, we've got a year to get your feet on the ground. It will be hard and furious, but we can get you ready.’”

Herbst came back to the farm and sat at his grandfather's knee learning the operation. Unfortunately, the doctors' were correct: his grandfather died the same month they'd predicted a year earlier.

With such a history, he said, “I love this farm. I wouldn't do anything to hurt it.”

Learning the business

Herbst insists he's a good neighbor. “Ventria's goal isn't to hurt anyone. If this project is unequivocally going to hurt markets — if there's proof that said, ‘Ventria rice being grown in Missouri will have a negative effect on rice markets’ — then we've got to back up and look at this thing all over again.”

Currently, Herbst farms about 3,500 acres. “We've been producing Asgrow seed for about 10 years now. My employees and I are very comfortable with identity preserved crops.”

Ventria's rice will be grown just behind Herbst's headquarters. Such close proximity will add to security, he said.

Will there be spotlights and cameras on the field? “We'll have lots of different things. I won't go on record with specifics because we don't want people to know all our lines of defense.” The field is currently being precision leveled and, if USDA permitting allows, should be planted soon.

Herbst said the permitting process contains a safety element. “A lot of people think this is Pandora's box — if it's opened, there's no stopping it. But Ventria's USDA permit has to be applied for every year. Even if FDA approves this rice as a food-grade crop — which I think they will, the rice will still be considered pharmaceutical.

“So, if there's a problem in the future — whether markets, containment or some other discrepancy — this crop can be stopped through the permitting process.”

Herbst's lack of experience with rice helped him land the Ventria acreage. “I'm not a rice farmer. What Ventria wanted was to move as far as possible away from the bulk of rice acreage. This 150 acres is now 7 miles from the nearest conventional rice field (a farming neighbor once planned to grow rice 4 miles away, but has since moved his rice).

“One mandate Ventria likes to use when growing its rice is not to plant it in a field that was in rice the year before. They want to make sure there's not a red rice problem — not just for red rice outcrosses, but to eliminate any contamination of its product. When it mills this rice, it wants a pharmaceutically pure product.”

Towards that goal, Herbst will not only host Ventria's 150 acres but also the company's Bootheel headquarters. New offices behind Herbst's are now being constructed.

“We'll have dedicated equipment and grain bins surrounded by an acre of concrete. The mill used to crush the rice will be on-site too.”

Anyone who walks in the Ventria field must undergo several hours of training. The field access will be restricted regardless, “but if you're going to get close, you have to go through the training. When you leave the field, you must know how to check your shoes, your clothes, how to hose down if need be. There are an awful lot of safeguards.”

Asked to explain the financial setup between Ventria and participating farmers, Herbst said, “This may have no bearing on the future, but the plan is for them to pay by the acre. Ventria's rice isn't going to yield as well as (food-grade) rice under normal conditions.”

Herbst won't divulge what Ventria is paying him. “What they do with me may be different than what they'll offer other farmers in coming years. Ventria pays an extremely fair price. They do so because, in coming years, they want to attract the best growers to the program.”

Since news of Ventria's plans hit the Bootheel, Herbst has attended a series of producer meetings to address concerns.

e-mail: [email protected]

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