TUCKED AWAY among corn and soybean fields in Missouri near the Iowa border this summer is going to be an unusual sight: fields of the crop that two-thirds of the world's population relies on as a diet staple — rice. It's going to be year two of a study of 12 rice varieties to see if rice can be grown successfully in the Corn Belt.

“Show Me State” researchers are reticent to make too much of one year's worth of data but acknowledge that yields of some varieties last year bested conventional rice grown in the South. Researchers nonetheless say they need several years' worth of data before drawing any conclusions.

Of the dozen varieties tested — some from Korea, India and the southern U.S. — five to six appear to be suitable for northern Missouri, those with 100- to 110-day growing seasons, says Bruce Burdick, superintendent of the University of Missouri's Hundley-Whaley Research Center. He notes that some of the varieties yielded more than 200 bu./acre, others 150 bu./acre, compared with 150 bu./acre average yields of rice grown in southern Missouri.

“This is the first rice grown in northern Missouri since the mid-1970s,” says Kelly Nelson, an agronomist involved in the project. He notes that while Missouri ranks fifth in the nation in rice production overall, commercial rice in recent decades has only been grown in the boot-heel region of the state that borders Arkansas and Tennessee, nearly 300 miles to the south.

Opposition to the project

Anything new has some level of controversy surrounding it, and the Missouri rice project is no exception. That's because what the researchers are doing has nothing to do with edible rice. Rather, it is the first step in trying to select varieties that would be genetically engineered to contain two human enzymes, or proteins, that occur in human breast milk, tears and other bodily fluids used in pharmaceuticals. These proteins, once converted into a powder form, would be used in granola bars and drinks to help infants in developing countries avoid death from diarrhea.

The opposition comes from two groups: environmentalists and others who are opposed to biotechnology, and conventional rice growers in Missouri who are concerned that having genetically grown rice in the state could affect their markets. Early on, Anheuser-Busch opposed pharmaceutical rice grown in Missouri and threatened to boycott the purchase of all rice grown in the state. The beer giant feared a consumer backlash if people thought biotech rice was seeping into its Bud. Since then, however, Busch has withdrawn its opposition to the genetically engineered rice project so long as there is a 120-mile buffer between it and conventionally grown rice.

The risks of contamination are virtually nonexistent because rice is self-pollinating, says Frank Veeman, special assistant to the president at Northwest Missouri State University, a partner in the research project along with the University of Missouri, California-based Ventria Bioscience, and Premium Ag Products Cooperative in Clarence, MO.

Veeman notes that USDA's biotech protocols require only a 10-ft. buffer zone for rice, whereas a 660-ft. buffer is required for corn that is genetically modified. “It would be a very closed system, very restrictive,” Burdick says.

Value-added production

In the view of Nelson and others, rice plantings in northern Missouri would never be large but would be an opportunity for valued-added production in corn and soybean country. “It's not like we're going to switch from corn and soybeans to rice,” Veeman says. He sees the possibility for 10,000 to 15,000 acres of genetically engineered rice production in northern Missouri but says, “that's still just a drop in the bucket.”

Brian Ottis, a rice production system specialist at the University of Missouri, says the “potential is exceptional” for growing rice in northern Missouri, and possibly as far north as Iowa, but admits, “I ride the fence on this issue.”

While seeing its potential, he also understands the rice industry's interest in wanting to protect its markets, noting that rice production is a $90-million-per-year industry in the state. He says the work is being done in Missouri because “Missouri is a biotechnology friendly state,” with Monsanto and other biotechnology companies located there. He says that if this effort is successful, other similar ventures will likely be explored.

If the trials prove successful and Ventria establishes a foothold, it probably will not have trouble finding producers. Premium Ag Products Cooperative, which has experience with identity-preserved soybeans, could find growers, says Jesse Schwanke, treasurer of the co-op. “We see this as an opportunity for northern Missouri farms to supply production acreage, thus adding value to their output,” he says.

Schwanke also says the co-op “has the expertise to segregate specialized crops,” although biotech firms would have their own protocols. In terms of commodity rice, northern Missouri is not a good fit; it would likely cost too much to haul rice to processing plants in the South, Schwanke says. “I don't think that we're efficient enough to get into large-scale rice production for food,” he says. However, he adds, for genetically modified rice, the area has a lot to offer.

HOW RICE IS GROWN

FOR THE MISSOURI rice project, 12 rice varieties were planted the first week of May and harvested early October. University of Missouri agronomist Kelly Nelson says that, in the research plots he studied, the ground was first worked with a conventional tillage system. Next, the rice was drill seeded, and the field was flooded once rice shoots grew from the base of the stems of the plants. The field was covered with several inches of water, drained the second week of September, and harvested in October.

In experimenting with water depths of 1 to 4 in., Nelson says he “likes 4 in. best,” because at that depth he did not have any broadleaf weeds such as common waterhemp and common cocklebur. However, the fields did have grass-type weeds such as barnyard grass, giant foxtail and fall panicum. He used both a preemergence and postemergence weed-control program and says that, on a commercial operation, postemergence herbicides and a second dose of nitrogen fertilizer “would have to be flown on.”

Researchers observed no diseases in rice grown during the 2005 season. Plant lodging is a major concern when selecting a cultivar for the region, Nelson says. All the researchers say that rice would be more difficult to manage than growing corn and soybeans.

One necessity for successful flooded rice production, Nelson says, is soils with low permeability, such as a hard clay pan soil in flat areas with little water movement through the soil profile. Northeast Missouri has more than 100,000 acres of these flat soils. Sandy soils, soils with good drainage or soils in hilly areas found in much of Missouri would not be good candidates for rice.

There are several ways to get the right amount of water to rice plants, Nelson explains. One is to build levees and flood the fields with several inches of water, as he did in his trials. Another is overhead irrigation, and yet another possibility is to replace the sprinkler head on a center pivot irrigation system with a soaker hose that's dragged across the rice. This would diversify the land requirements for rice production in northern Missouri. Irrigation systems would possibly allow the use of less water than levee systems for flood-irrigated rice, researchers say.