Ventria Bioscience wants to grow rice modified to produce human proteins on more than 3,000 acres (1,215 hectares) of farmland. The pharmaceutical rice would be harvested and refined for use in medicines to fight diarrhoea, dehydration and other illnesses that kill millions of infants and toddlers each year.

Safety concerns

While Kansas officials have embraced the project as a boon to the state's emerging biosciences industry, environmentalists and some food groups warn the proteins could find their way into the food chain, causing medical reactions or allergies.

"We're opposed to the production of pharmaceutical and industrial chemicals in food crops grown outdoors because we think there are too many ways contamination of the food supply could occur," said Karen Perry Stillerman, senior analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists, a science advocacy group.

The department released a draft environmental assessment on Wednesday that concluded planting the rice poses virtually no risk. No commercial rice is grown in Kansas and Ventria will use dedicated equipment, storage and processing facilities to prevent seeds from mixing with other crops, the USDA said. The rice will be milled on site.
But Stillerman said weather events, like tornadoes, could carry seeds into other fields where contamination could occur. She also cited the possibility of human error in transporting and handling the rice.

The public has until March 30 to submit comments to the USDA. If final approval is granted, Ventria will begin planting rice in April or May, Deeter said.