rice in bowl
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Rice with human genes will soon be grown in Kansas.

Rice engineered to contain human genes will be grown for the first time outdoors instead of in a laboratory, bringing it one step closer to commercial production, according to The Washington Post. The genes that the California-based biotechnology company Ventria Bioscience has infused into rice enable the plant to produce bacteria-fighting proteins found in human breast milk and saliva. "We can really help children with diarrhea get better faster," Scott E. Deeter, the company's president and chief executive, explained of the product.

But many consumer groups are worried the engineered rice will do more harm than good. Genetically modified (GM) plants have a history of migrating out of their target plots and contaminating other plants, critics note, and it would be difficult to control the doses of human proteins that people purposely or inadvertently take in. "This is not a product that everyone would want to consume," Jane Rissler of the Union of Concerned Scientists told the Post. "It is unwise to produce drugs in plants outdoors."

A study in Peru sponsored by Ventria Bioscience demonstrated that children with severe diarrhea recovered a day and a half faster when taking fluids that contained the proteins. But this does not make the rice a "silver bullet" for combating diarrhea in developing countries, experts say. "There's no guarantee that the public will use this in poorer nations, as patent issues have obstructed altruistic biotech applications before," notes Worldwatch Institute researcher Brian Halweil.

And, according to Halweil's colleague Danielle Nierenberg, "most of these GM-enhanced varieties of crops don't really address the root problems of poverty and disease." Every year, over one million infants and children die from diseases associated with inadequate water and sanitation, and hundreds of millions of people are "debilitated" by illness, pain, and discomfort, authors David Satterthwaite and Gordon McGranahan write in Worldwatch's State of the World 2007 report.

"Instead of pushing these products on poor consumers who lack the financial ability to say 'no' to GM plants, the money invested in developing these crops could go to broader goals like providing clean water and sanitation to prevent the very diseases these crops are created to treat," Nierenberg says.