Plant breeder sees value of genetically modified rice

Steve Linscombe says the biotechnology debate — especially regarding plant-made pharmaceutical crops — is largely colored in shades of gray. Regardless of allegiance, those who see it strictly in black and white, according to the well-respected LSU senior rice breeder, have probably “bought into a lot of misinformation and conclusions. It gets convoluted.”

That doesn't mean he isn't a proponent of biotechnology. Having watched the recent struggle between Missouri Bootheel rice producers, processors and Ventria BioScience (a company that plans to grow pharmaceutical rice in Missouri), Linscombe acknowledges market issues facing producers but hopes the project will ultimately succeed.

“I know quite a bit about Ventria. At one time it was interested in locating in northwest Louisiana — isolated from our main rice production. Scott Deeter (Ventria CEO) even met with some of our millers and producers.”

Ventria offers “fantastic potential. I'm hopeful it can get past all the (regulatory and market) issues. It needs to get established so it can be productive. I believe rice is going to be a great engine to produce unbelievable benefits. The two proteins Ventria wants to produce are just the tip of the iceberg. I'm very hopeful they have overcome the major obstacles.”

Linscombe described Ventria's protocol for containing its rice as “one of the best I've ever seen. When you're dealing with a biological system you can't say any protection is 100 percent. But that particular protocol was pretty close.”

Yet, Linscombe admitted, the plant-made pharmaceutical rice offers “no advantage to any farmer except the one growing it. The potential downside of the market was all the growers could see. To get around that means changing the attitude of end users. How we do that, I don't know. I've been trying to help change it for 10 years.”

While the debate over genetically modified rice — plant-made pharmaceutical or otherwise — is unresolved, many potential advantages remain beyond producers' reach. Researchers at the Crowley, La., research facility where Linscombe works have already studied “very promising” herbicide-resistant and Bt rice varieties.

The need for those varieties has become evident, he said. Additional herbicide-resistant rice varieties are needed to combat red rice.

“Clearfield is out there in big acreage — maybe over 800,000 acres this year. And I'll tell you: the outcrossing issue with Clearfield is real. It will become more and more of a concern every year we grow Clearfield varieties. We'll see more this year because producers are going back into many fields that were in Clearfield in 2003.

“We can minimize it, and proper stewardship is very important. But we're going to have Clearfield/red rice outcrosses, and the ultimate way to address them is new herbicide-resistant rice. I think by the end of this season it's going to be obvious how much we need it.”

LibertyLink rice is ready and could be introduced tomorrow, said Linscombe. “The varieties developed with the Liberty gene in them are as good as our highest-yielding conventionals. Liberty herbicide also has a Section 3 registration in rice — it could be sprayed today. But Bayer has decided not to bring this technology to market until there's a more positive shift in market acceptability.”

Linscombe frets the Delta — even the country — will lose out if a compromise between the competing sides isn't found. “I fear that I'm watching something slip away before it even has a chance to blossom. A lot of incredible traits could benefit not only rice producers but also processors, millers and consumers. These things are gathering dust on a shelf because the companies that own them aren't going to put a lot of R&D money into them until they see light at the end of the tunnel.”

Make no mistake, he said, the traits will be developed in other countries if not here. If that happens — “and it's already happening” — the United States will lose its current research advantage.

“No company or state researcher is going to put a lot of effort into these things until there's more acceptability.”

As an example, Linscombe pointed to a Bt rice line he tested several years ago. The line was 100 percent effective on stem borers and stalk borers.

“It was like nothing I'd ever seen. But the company we were working with isn't pursuing it anymore in the United States. My understanding is the company is pursuing it in other countries where there's a different atmosphere regarding GM crops.”

Linscombe sits on the USA Rice Federation's Technology Task Force Committee. Addressing biotech issues is part of the committee's charge.

“There is an earnest desire on the part of the federation to move this forward. Any failure isn't from a lack of effort. Maybe some other things need to be done. But the GM issue pulls at everyone in so many directions. This is such a challenge, so complex.

“Representatives from every interested agricultural party need to sit down together and have a lengthy, intelligent discussion about this. Everyone believes that his opinion is the right one. But it doesn't hurt me to hear a beer company's issues and vice-versa. Once there, maybe we could come to a consensus on how to address this before the world. It's worth a shot: this is too important.”

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