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Tears, rice and free California; Other news

(Friday, March 18, 2005 -- CropChoice news) --

1. Pharm Rice a Threat to Missouri Farmers, Food
2. Tears, Rice and a Free California
3. Crop bill receives approval in Iowa House
4. Partnership Hopes to Unlock Soybean Code
5. Monsanto: Biotech wheat revival unlikely
6. New Searchable Database on the Revolving Door and Biotech

1. Pharm Rice a Threat to Missouri Farmers, Food

For Immediate Release
March 17, 2005


Bill Freese, Friends of the Earth, 573-447-1588, billfreese@prodigy.net

Ellen Treimel, Missouri Public Interest Research Group, 314-454-9560, etreimel@mopirg.org

Craig Culp, Center for Food Safety, 202-547-9359 or 301-509-0925, cculp@icta.org

COLUMBIA, Mo. / WASHINGTON - Field trials of genetically engineered, pharmaceutical-producing rice would result in contamination of the food supply and should not be allowed to proceed in Missouri, consumer and environmental groups told federal and state authorities today. Pending state and federal approval, up to 204.5 acres of pharmaceutical rice could be grown this year in rice-growing southeast Missouri, the largest planting of a pharmaceutical crop yet attempted anywhere in the world. The pharmaceutical rice was developed by Ventria Bioscience.

"Missouri farmers and consumers should not have to worry about drugs contaminating their crops and food," said Bill Freese, research analyst with Friends of the Earth and an expert on biopharming, "but that's just what will happen if Ventria is allowed to start growing its pharmaceutical rice in the state. We urge federal and Missouri state authorities to just say no to this foolish experimentation with drug-producing rice."

Biopharming is an experimental technique in which crops like rice, barley and tobacco are genetically engineered with human or animal genes to become biofactories for the production of experimental pharmaceuticals. Yet not a single plant-made pharmaceutical has been approved by the Food and Drug Administration.

"We must not allow Missouri to become a testing ground for an unproven technology that threatens farmers, consumers and the state's food industry," said Ellen Treimel, field organizer with the Missouri Public Interest Research Group.

In a 13-page briefing paper sent to federal and Missouri state officials, the groups describe the many ways pharmaceutical rice could be spread, including by rice-eating birds, floods, cross-pollination with other rice or related weeds, rice grains transported in farm machinery, or human error in cultivation, shipping and disposal.

"Just a few years ago, pharmaceutical corn got mixed into soybeans and regular corn," said Joseph Mendelson, Legal Director of the Center for Food Safety. "The contaminated food had to be destroyed, costing millions of dollars. The same thing could happen with Ventria's rice."

"The Food and Drug Administration has not approved these rice-grown pharmaceuticals, and it may never do so," added Freese. "It is irresponsible of the FDA to allow untested, unapproved pharmaceuticals to be grown in food crops when the risks of contamination are so great."

The briefing paper cites scientific studies to highlight the potential human health impacts of Ventria's pharmaceuticals, which are artificial versions of human milk and blood proteins. These risks include aggravation of bacterial infections, allergic reactions and autoimmune disorders.

The groups also dispute claims by industry representatives that biopharming will be an economic success for rice farmers or that new jobs will be created in Missouri.

"The claims they're making about new jobs and benefits for Missouri farmers from biopharming are pure speculation," said Treimel. "The truth is, neither Ventria nor any other biopharm company has gotten a single plant-made pharmaceutical approved by the FDA. No products, no jobs."

Ventria Bioscience is presently based in California. In 2004, federal and California authorities quashed the company's bid to grow 120 acres of pharmaceutical rice in Southern California, partly because of a prior violation of field trial permit conditions. In November 2004, the company announced plans to set up shop at Northwest Missouri State University in Maryville. The move was prompted by opposition to pharmaceutical rice in California, a $30 million subsidy package from the state of Missouri, and a laxer regulatory environment in the state.


2. Tears, Rice and a Free California

by Arty Mangan, Bioneers Food and Farming Director

I don't cry much. I'll hide behind a cliche and say, "It's a guy thing". The human body is truly amazing. Did you know that a teardrop contains proteins that are natural antibiotics and protect against eye infection? You may not know that, but the biotech company Ventria Bioscience does, and they want to own it. Yes, they want to own the genetics of the protein contained in tears.

It makes me want to cry.

Biotech companies are in the business of owning life forms by manipulating genes using a virus as a vector, slapping a patent on it, making it theirs and theirs alone. Maybe this is what is meant by "the ownership society". It would all be quite absurd if it wasn't so serious. Privatization of public resources is a corporate crusade, and it's not just happening in the biotech arena. In Bolivia, Bechtel had a water provision contract and went so far as to privatize rainwater in the Province of Cochabamba. When the indigenous Ayamara people collected rain runoff from their roofs for household needs and to water their gardens, Bechtel protested, claiming the locals were stealing their water. It got ugly, a 17 year old boy died when the police were brought in to control the riots. But at least in the end, Bechtel packed up and left.

Yes, as hard as it is to believe, we live in a world where rainwater and teardrops are at risk of being owned by corporations.

But first I want to say that not all businesses should be painted with the same brush. Let me tell you about Albert Lundberg. Albert learned early in life the value of good soil. He was a refugee from the Midwest dustbowl era. When drought, wind and erosion made farming in Nebraska impossible, he headed to California and started growing rice commercially. By the 1960's, he had developed "organic" agriculture growing practices before there was any certification or even a market premium. He developed those methods to care for and conserve a farmer's main asset, the soil. By the late 1960's, he developed relationships with natural food distributors Chico San and Erewon and began to market organic brown rice. Today the Lundberg organization involves 2nd and 3rd generation family members and is a leader in organic rice production. The Lundbergs have a written policy against using food crops as platforms for drug production and they played a significant role in educating rice farmers and industry members on the issues of genetically engineered (GE) pharmaceutical rice and its potential impact on California's 500,000 acre, 500 million dollar rice industry.

Plants as drug factories and pig vaccine in corn

Ventria Bioscience has been doing research field trials of their pharmaceutical rice in California since 1997. The rice contains synthetic versions of the human proteins found in tears and breast milk. Ventria hopes to market the drug as anti-diarrhea, antibiotic and anti-fungal. Federal regulations allow location of test fields to be confidential. That information can even be withheld from the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) by simply writing CBI (confidential business information) on the application. The only real requirement is a 100 ft. buffer between GE research and commercial crops. Things like pig vaccines and human contraceptives have been part of the over one-hundred GE pharmaceutical field trials approved for research in the U.S.; nine of which have been conducted in California. Biotech companies like the idea of turning farm crops into drug factories for the simple reason it is a cheap production system.

In the year 2000, the California Rice Commission worked with the California state legislature to pass regulation AB2622 (also known as the California Rice Certification Act). The regulation formed an Advisory Board that has the power to approve and create protocols for any new rice introduced into California. It is the only such regulation for any crop in any state.

In March of 2004, Ventria went to the California Rice Commission requesting an emergency ruling to approve their rice for commercial production so they wouldn't miss the planting season that year.

Wait a second. What's the hurry? Why after seven years of research trials did Ventria give itself only one month to get commercial production approval? Was it bad planning on Ventria's part, or perhaps good strategy? Either way what's the emergency?

Nevertheless, the AB2622 Advisory Board granted Ventria an expedited process, with a truncated public comment period reduced to 10 days from the normal 30. Rice farmers, who feared contamination could jeopardize their crop, contacted CAL GE Free, a coalition to halt the introduction of GE crops. FDA has a zero tolerance for pharmaceutical crop contamination. CAL GE Free was instrumental in working with the farmers and helping get the word out to the public. As a result two to three thousand responses were received, heavily against approving the crop. In addition Amberwaves, an NGO dedicated to preserving whole grains from the threat of genetic engineering, presented Board member Tim Johnson with a petition signed by another 10,000 people against growing pharmaceutical rice.

The AB2622 Advisory Board's attorney George Soarez advised the Board that they could not ban Ventria's rice, and could not consider in their decision how the public would accept the risk of contamination. Soarez advised the Board that it could only set terms and conditions for the planting of the pharmaceutical rice.

Now here is an interesting coincidence. George Soarez is a partner of Kahn, Soarez, and Conway, a law firm that represents other producers of GE crops, including Dow and Syngenta. Syngenta has conducted at least nine GE rice crop field tests, including at least one in California.

Doesn't that raise the question: how, under such circumstances, a legal interpretation could be objective and unbiased even if an honest intent is there? It certainly got the attention of The Center for Food Safety (CFS) who publicly raised the issue of conflict of interest and then had its legal team present its interpretation of the regulation to the AB2622 Advisory Board. In essence, the CFS legal team said it saw no restriction in the regulation prohibiting the Board from either banning the Ventria crop or from considering how public acceptance of the risk of drug rice contaminating food rice would impact its market.

Step Back

Let's take a step back just for a moment and take a broader look. California's rice fields are one of the largest natural wildlife sanctuaries in North America, with hundreds of species of mammals, birds, insects, amphibians, and fish. How would antibiotic rice affect all of that?

These human proteins are found in tears, saliva, breast milk, even in the protective barrier that guards babies in the womb against E.coli, strep, and yeast infections. They are exquisite substances, profound biological treasures protecting all of us as part of our complex, elegant and not totally understood immune system.

What happens if Ventria's synthetic version of these proteins does get loose in the food system? Decades ago Penicillin was an effective antibiotic against certain pathogens. We know now, those same pathogens, through adaptation and antibiotic resistance, eat Penicillin for lunch, given the opportunity. BT, a natural bacteria that is fatal to some agricultural pests, is used effectively and harmlessly in its natural form by organic farmers. We know now that in its genetically engineered form in corn, it is deadly to beneficial microbes and creates a dead zone in the soil.

There are no guarantees against contamination. What are the potential unintended consequences of rice containing antibiotic drugs polluting the food system? No one really knows, not even Ventria, regardless of their assurances. With all of that as backdrop the AB2622 Advisory Board was charged, appropriately, with making a decision based solely on the economic impact to its industry. Forty percent of U.S. rice is exported and Japan is the number one export destination. Tsutomu Matsumoto, Japan's consul in the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries, and Forestry, in a written statement to the San Francisco Chronicle said "Concerning California's (genetically engineered) rice production issue, Japanese consumers have a serious concern in regards to food safety".

Nevertheless, following the legal guidelines of its attorney, the Advisory Board approved commercialization of Ventria pharmaceutical rice with the following restrictions: it could only be grown in ten designated counties in Southern California, all of which are at least 100 miles from the Davis to Chico rice growing belt, equipment must be cleaned in the same field where the GE rice is grown to prevent transporting viable GE seed rice to other fields, and harvested product must be covered in transport. It did allow for milled GE pharmaceutical rice to be transported back to rice counties for processing, and for research trials to be conducted anywhere in the state without public knowledge of location, deferring to the federal standard. To its credit the Board established the strictest controls anywhere in the U.S. for any GE drug or food crop. But are they enough?

Change of plans

The Advisory Board then presented those recommended protocols to the California Secretary of Agriculture A.G. Kagamura. The Secretary rejected Ventria's emergency proposal. John C Dyer of CDFA said "It is clear that the public wants an opportunity to comment prior to any authorization to plant." So Ventria decided to move to Missouri and will collaborate with Northwest Missouri State University to become the anchor company in a new program of GE plant-made-pharmaceutical production.

What happened in California is important. There was a process that allowed input by the rice industry, the public, environmental groups, business and state agencies. All too often these decisions are solely in the hands of the Biotech industry and the complicit federal regulatory agencies. California rice is the only industry that has some say in what crop varieties are introduced. That level of local control was able to slow down the steamroller of the Biotech industry and ultimately accommodate crucial public input.

How can other states implement and improve on the process? Arkansas, the leading rice producing state, has recently passed legislation banning rice with human genes. What will Missouri do?

Was the process in California perfect? No one I talked to thought so. But at least in the end, Ventria packed up and left.

For more information: USDA requesting public comments. Go to: http://www.seedalliance.org/index.php?page=Action-Alert-Rice ) on pharmaceutical rice by March 25

3. Crop bill receives approval in Iowa House
Local governments wouldn't be able to ban planting of certain seeds


The Iowa House of Representatives approved a bill Monday that pre-empts local governments from banning the planting of certain crops, such as seeds that have been genetically modified.

The bill was introduced by Rep. Sandy Greiner, a Keota Republican, at the request of the Iowa Seed Association. It was approved by a vote of 70-27 and sent to the Senate.

Greiner said the intent of the bill was simple: to give the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship final authority on seed grown in Iowa.

Clarifying that the state is the final authority would prevent local governments - cities, counties or townships - from barring the planting of genetically modified, organic or any other type of seeds, Greiner said.

"I can see where we could have corn planted specifically for use in ethanol production, and one or two people could get it banned in the whole township because they are worried that it would cross-pollinate with their crops," Greiner said.

Greiner said she has been accused of introducing the bill to promote large agribusiness.

"I'm standing up for small farmers," said Greiner, who farms with her husband, Terry, and their three sons. "I want to see small farmers continue to be able to plant traditional crops."

Critics of the bill are misrepresenting it, she said, by saying it would prevent the planting of organic or identity-preserved crops.

Identity-preserved crops are grown for a specific use, such as organic soybeans for food or high-starch corn for ethanol, and need to be sequestered from other plants to keep from losing their special qualities.

"That's a flagrant misrepresenting of the bill," Greiner said.

Identity-preserved crops are being grown now in Iowa without any state protection, she said, and would continue to be.

Rep. Mark Kuhn, a Charles City Democrat, offered two amendments to the bill.

One amendment, which defined genetically modified crops, was ruled out of order by Rep. Rod Roberts, a Carroll Republican, who was presiding as speaker during Monday's debate.

The other amendment, which would have created agricultural areas to protect identity-preserved or other types of specialty crops, was defeated, 62-36.

Kuhn said the bill was a creation of the biotechnology industry, which wants to prevent the growing of organic and identity-preserved crops.

The bill also meant a loss of local control and home rule for areas of the state that wanted to boost the growing of higher-value specialty crops like food grade soybeans and corn for export markets. There are efforts in other states to ban the growing of genetically modified crops.

In California, Daniel Solnit, campaign coordinator for the GE-Free Sonoma initiative, said three counties in California have enacted bans of genetically engineered crops and 15 other counties are watching the Sonoma County ballot initiative, scheduled for a Nov. 8 vote.

The movement to ban genetically modified crops is spreading throughout California, he said.

"If the biotech industry is scared, it should be," Solnit said.

Renata Brillinger, who works for Californians for a GE-Free Agriculture, a coalition of groups headquartered in Occidental, Calif., said three local initiatives to ban genetically engineered crops have failed.

A dozen other communities are interested in similar measures, but only Sonoma County has it on the ballot, she said.

4. Partnership Hopes to Unlock Soybean Code

Associated Press, March 09

ST. LOUIS - Agribusiness titan Monsanto Co. has teamed with a biotechnology company and the U.S. government in a bid to unlock the genetic code of soybeans, hoping to supply breeders with technology that makes the crop more resistant to disease and drought.

As part of the deal unveiled Wednesday, Monsanto, Genaissance Pharmaceuticals Inc. and the U.S. Department of Agriculture's research arm seek to map DNA markers in soybeans, creating a detailed molecular genetic map.

That information then will be freely available to U.S. soybean breeders and geneticists on federal databases and in scientific journals, creating the first publicly available map of its kind.

"What we learn from this research will be critical in our search for additional insights into ways to improve the characteristics, production rates and disease resistance of a variety of field crops, including soybeans and other plant species," said Gerald Vovis, executive vice president and chief technology officer of Genaissance, based in New Haven, Conn.

Without specifying financial terms of the deal, the companies said Monsanto would fund the mapping that will be done entirely by Genaissance, given that company's experience.

Such partnerships are not new. Last year, Monsanto and two other companies transferred their corn-sequencing information to a Web database searchable by scientists looking to unlock that vegetable's genetic code.

As part of that deal, Monsanto, Iowa-based DuPont subsidiary Pioneer Hi-Bred International Inc. and Monsanto research partner Ceres Inc., based in Malibu, Calif., agreed to release their data on the corn genome to researchers at nonprofit institutions, for noncommercial use.

With a goal of sequencing the corn genome by 2007 - perhaps several years ahead of when it otherwise would be completed - scientists hope to hasten development of biotech crops perhaps more resilient to drought or that can produce more nutritious corn or fibers.

Monsanto shares rose 27 cents to close at $61.50 in Wednesday trading on the New York Stock Exchange - at the high end of its 52-week trading range of $31.36 to $64.31.

Shares of Genaissance rose 10 cents to close at $1.70 on the Nasdaq Stock Market, where they have traded between $1.49 and $4.48 over the past year.

On the Net:

Monsanto Co., http://www.monsanto.com
Genaissance Pharmaceuticals, http://www.genaissance.com .

5. Monsanto: Biotech wheat revival unlikely

By K.T. Arasu, Reuters, 03/16/05

CHICAGO (Reuters) - Biotech crop pioneer Monsanto Co. said on Wednesday it was unlikely any time soon [!] to resurrect its project to develop genetically modified wheat, which it suspended last May.

The company instead [time to change the subject!] would plow its resources into a conventionally bred variety of soybeans that will produce a cooking oil with a lower level of cholesterol-producing trans fatty acids.

"We saw what's going on with food and trans fats, and we saw that resource we are putting in wheat is not nearly as valuable as putting it into the food and oil side," Monsanto Executive Vice President Jerry Steiner told the Reuters Food Summit in Chicago.

Steiner said the soybeans will have low linolenic acid, reducing the need for partial hydrogenation of soybean oil. Hydrogenation is a chemical process that gives products a longer shelf life but creates trans fats.

Medical experts believe trans fats are more harmful to the heart than other forms of fat that have been linked to heart disease, such as animal fats.

Steiner said the soybeans would be grown on about 100,000 acres this spring in Iowa, adding that the crop could be planted on 5 million acres over the next four to five years -- about 7 percent of total U.S. soybean acreage.

The shifting of Monsanto's funds to the new variety of soybeans comes after the company shelved its project to develop a transgenic wheat amid a global outcry from consumers alarmed at the prospect of genetic engineering of a key food crop.

"Would we bring it back next year? It's highly unlikely," Steiner said of the genetically modified wheat.

Monsanto, based in St. Louis, Missouri, has successfully commercialized genetically modified corn and soybeans, which are widely grown in the United States.

Monsanto had been field-testing Roundup Ready wheat, which was genetically modified to tolerate applications of the company's Roundup herbicide, for six years and spent millions of dollars on the project.

Steiner said the company decided that pushing ahead with the project would have divided the wheat industry.

"The product has to make sense economically and we have to make best use of our resources," he added.

Even wheat industry leaders, who said biotechnology could lead to improved profitability for struggling wheat growers, warned that Roundup Ready wheat could devastate exports of all U.S. and Canadian wheat, as buyers in many countries refuse to accept genetically modified crops.

6. New Searchable Database on the Revolving Door and Biotech


Contact: Beth Burrows (Edmonds Institute) 425-775-5383

March 14, Edmonds, Washington. The Edmonds Institute today announced its "New Revolving Door", a searchable database about people who have worked in/for both government and industry, with emphasis on those connected to the biotechnology industry.

The Institute, a small public interest group focused on environment and technology, has been collecting "revolving door" data since the late 1990s when, according to Institute director, Beth Burrows, "We began to wonder who exactly was negotiating for the U.S. and what were their goals."

The Institute's first "revolving door" publication - a piece of paper distributed to those negotiating an international biosafety protocol - announced the "change of employment" of L. Val Giddings. "One week he was on the USDA-APHIS team and the next he was with the Biotechnology Industry Organization, " said Burrows, adding, "Technically, such changes of employment are not illegal. Few if any people in this database are breaking any law. But sometimes, their rapid movement from the public to the private sector or vice versa raises the specters of impropriety and conflict of interest. People question exactly when the interests of their public servants stopped being the public interest. "

The website at http://www.edmonds-institute.org/newdoor.html explains: "Confidence in government and particularly in government regulation is compromised whenever the independence of those making decisions, including those empowered to regulate, is called into question. Despite the existence of ethics laws, codes and regulations, movements of personnel between the 'private sector' (industry) and 'government' raise concern in some quarters about potential conflicts of interest."

This database includes information about people in several countries who have worked in both the public and the private sector. The information, accumulated over a period of years, was recently greatly augmented by researchers at the Public Information Network. The online database was designed by Hoffman Graphics of Seattle.

"It's a work-in-progress," Burrows admits. "It is neither comprehensive nor complete. We only have about 125 names. We continue to do research. And it takes us some time to verify all the tips we get." She cautions, "We're just trying to point out the connections. It's up to others to decide for themselves the meaning of those connections. "

Citations for the information in the database are provided on site. "Much of the data comes from websites, and thus citations may become outdated, Burrows says. "We welcome corrections and suggestions for improvement."

The Institute intends to update and expand the database over time to enable researchers to access information about those in government or those advising government in any part of the world. On the eve of an agreement with a European NGO (non-governmental organization) to make this an international database, the Edmonds Institute decided to release the material accumulated to date.

For more information about the Institute, contact: The Edmonds Institute 20319-92nd Avenue West Edmonds, Washington 98020 USA phone:(001) 425-775-5383 email: beb@igc.org website:http://www.edmonds-institute.org