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January 2006 Updates

Monsanto's Man at the U.S. Trade Office

By Tom Philpott
Grist Magazine
January 09, 2006

When Bush wants to kill a program or a department, he picks a clown to run it. Think of FEMA's disgraced "Brownie," who did such a "heck of a job" when disaster struck the Gulf Coast.

When the president sees something real at stake for his corporate clients, though, he tends to anoint an ultra-qualified pro: someone, typically, with direct ties to the industry in question. In surely the most spectacular example, Bush placed responsibility for creating energy policy in the crude-stained hands of Dick Cheney.

The world of agriculture presents its own examples. Over on Bitter Greens Journal last year, I documented how the president planted an industrial-corn man, with ties to corn-processing behemoth Archer-Daniels Midland, as deputy head of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Now I present you with Richard Crowder: erstwhile president of the American Seed Trade Association, a 15-year veteran of Dekalb Genetics Corporation (now part of Monsanto), former exec at Conagra and Pillsbury -- and newly minted chief agricultural negotiator for U.S. Trade Representative Rob Portman.

It's hard to exaggerate the importance of Crowder's new position. The WTO's latest phase of free-trade talks, known as the Doha round, have bogged down in a dispute between the U.S., Europe, and much of the global south over agriculture subsidies.

As I reported here, Bush seems ready to trash the U.S. subsidy system, which props up industrial agriculture to the tune of about $15 billion per year, so long as the WTO rams open developing-world markets to U.S. goods. As USDA chief Mike Johanns recently put it, "We must use the WTO to force open markets for U.S. products."

That, evidently, is Crowder's job: muscling poor countries into exposing their farmers to competition from their highly capitalized U.S. counterparts.

He'll have another big job, too -- this one directly pertaining to his background as a global champion of genetically modified crops. (Note: at Dekalb Genetics, Crowder "managed all of [the company's] business outside of the United States involving more than 30 countries," according to a U.S. Trade Rep press release.)

The United States is locked in a dispute with the European Union over the acceptance of GM crops. To maintain their outlandish growth rates, Monsanto and its ilk need access to the giant European market for corn and soybean seeds. The U.S. government has predictably taken up the GM seed industry's cause, petitioning the WTO to strike down the EU's anti-GM stance. Crowder will be there to push that agenda.

Finally, the GM seed giants cannot thrive without a draconian intellectual-property framework, one that lets them enforce long-term claims to royalties on their genetic traits -- even when those traits spread through cross-pollination. In the U.S., the industry wields the Plant Variety Protection Act of 1970, which gives it the power to patent seed traits, and exact royalties from farmers, for 20 years after introducing a variety.

Crowder's challenge will be to create similar frameworks in high-producing countries like Brazil and Argentina, where farmers have embraced GM corn and soy seeds while flouting Monsanto's demands for royalty payments.

As a model, he may look to Iraq. Well over a year ago, the U.S.-dominated Coalition Provisional Authority enshrined a seed framework that reads like something dreamed up by a Monsanto attorney.

USTR Portman Thanks Senate for Swift Confirmation of Richard Crowder

The Office of the United States Trade Representative
December 20, 2005

United States Trade Representative Rob Portman today thanked the United States Senate for their swift action on the nomination of Richard Crowder as USTR Chief Agricultural Negotiator.

"Trade is critical to U.S. agriculture because the produce from one of every three acres grown in the U.S. is exported," Amb. Portman said. "Dick's experience and background give him a unique understanding of domestic and international agricultural issues. His input will be crucial in helping to unlock the agricultural deadlock at the WTO and advancing the work that began last week in Hong Kong. I look forward to working with him on these critical agricultural issues and I thank the Senate for this swift confirmation."

Dr. Crowder will be responsible for directing all U.S. agricultural trade negotiations anywhere in the world, including multilaterally in the World Trade Organization, as well as regionally and bilaterally.

Dr. Crowder has more than 30 years experience in the food, agriculture, and international trade industries. He has been president and CEO of the American Seed Trade Association, Alexandria, Va., since 2002.

Prior to joining ASTA, he worked as an independent consultant. From 1984-1999 he was Senior Vice President, International, of DEKALB Genetics Corporation (now part of Monsanto), a worldwide leader in agricultural genetics and seed biotechnology that markets hybrid corn, sorghum and sunflower seed as well as varietal soybean and alfalfa. In this role he managed all of DEKALB's business outside of the United States involving more than 30 countries.

Before joining DEKALB in 1994, Dr. Crowder was Executive Vice President and General Manager, International of meat processor Armour Swift-Eckrich, a division of ConAgra. From 1975-89, he worked at the Pillsbury Company in a series of increasingly responsible senior executive positions.

He served as Under Secretary of International Affairs & Commodity Programs for the U.S. Department of Agriculture from 1989-1992. In this role, he was responsible for all agencies concerned with international trade and development as well as domestic farm programs. He had leadership roles in major trade negotiations and the 1990 Farm Bill.

Dr. Crowder, who grew up on a farm in Virginia, has a B.S. and M.S. from Virginia Tech and a Ph.D. from Oklahoma State University.


A Columnist Backed by Monsanto

By Eamon Javers
January 13, 2006

Michael Fumento's failure to disclose payments to him in 1999 from the agribusiness giant has now caused Scripps Howard to sever its ties to him

Scripps Howard News Service announced Jan. 13 that it's severing its business relationship with columnist Michael Fumento, who's also a senior fellow at the conservative Hudson Institute. The move comes after inquiries from BusinessWeek Online about payments Fumento received from agribusiness giant Monsanto (MON ) -- a frequent subject of praise in Fumento's opinion columns and a book.

In a statement released on Jan. 13, Scripps Howard News Service Editor and General Manager Peter Copeland said Fumento "did not tell SHNS editors, and therefore we did not tell our readers, that in 1999 Hudson recieved a $60,000 grant from Monsanto." Copeland added: "Our policy is that he should have disclosed that information. We apologize to our readers." In the Jan. 5 column, Fumento wrote that St. Louis-based Monsanto has about 30 products in the pipeline that will aid farmers, "but also help us all by keeping prices down and allowing more crops to be grown on less land."

He listed some of the products Monsanto has on tap: drought-resistant corn, crops that could reduce the need for environment-damaging fertilizers, and soybeans that might reduce heart disease.

"YOU SHOULD CONTRIBUTE." In his career at Hudson, Fumento has carved out a specialty debunking critics of the agribusiness and biotechnology industries. In 1999, he says, he solicited $60,000 from Monsanto to write a book on the business. The book, entitled BioEvolution was published in 2003. A spokesman for Monsanto confirmed the payments to the Hudson Institute.

Asked about the payments, Fumento says, "I'm just extremely pro-biotech." He says he solicited several agribusiness companies to finance his book, which was published by Encounter Books. "I went after everybody, I've got to be honest," Fumento says of his fund-raising effort. "I told them that if I tell the truth in this book, the biotech industry is going to look really good, and you should contribute."

The Monsanto grant, he says, flowed from the company to the Hudson Institute to support his work. A portion went to overhead and "most of it" went into his salary. He says the money was simply folded into his salary for that year, and therefore represented no windfall to him personally.

"STATUTE OF LIMITATIONS." The book's acknowledgements cite support from The Donner Foundation and "others who wish to remain anonymous." Fumento didn't disclose the payment from Monsanto either in the book or in at least eight columns he has written mentioning Monsanto since 1999. He explained in his recent column that he focused exclusively on Monsanto due to a "lack of space and because their annual report was plopped onto my lap while I was hunting for a column idea."

The author says he sees no conflict of interest in his recent columns because the grant came several years ago. "If you're thinking quid pro quo," he says, "I think there's a statute of limitations on that."

BioEvolution argues that advances in biotechnology are overwhelmingly positive for humanity, and it quotes Monsanto scientists, along with those from other companies, at length. In one section, Fumento writes that Monsanto allowed outside researchers to use plant patents it had developed without a licensing fee, to help alleviate suffering in the Third World. "Has this all been good PR for Monsanto?" Fumento asks in the book. "Yes it has, as headlines have made clear. But a good deed is a good deed."

ONGOING RELATIONSHIP. Monsanto spokesman Chris Horner acknowledges two 1999 payments to Hudson of $30,000 each, but he says the company's records don't indicate whether the payments were expressly for the book, as Fumento says. "It's our practice, that if we're dealing with an organization like this, that any funds we're giving should be unrestricted," Horner says.

He adds that Monsanto maintains an ongoing financial relationship with Hudson, but explains that the company did not pay for the recent Fumento op-ed or any others he has written. "He received a press release from us, as did lots of others in his profession, and he chose to write about it on the basis of that," Horner says.

New York-based Encounter Books says it doesn't have an immediate response to queries about the book's funding.

"WITCH-HUNTING FRENZY." Fumento insists that disclosure of financial transactions between op-ed columnists and the companies they cover wouldn't be practical. The op-ed money trail is only now getting attention, he argues in an e-mail, because of BusinessWeek Online's recent revelation that Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff had paid two columnists for years to deliver good press to his clients (see BW Online, 12/16/05, "Op-Eds for Sale").

"We're in a witch-hunting frenzy now but, as after all witch hunts, people do return to their senses and regret the piles of ashes at their feet," Fumento writes. "Often it happened fast enough the witch hunters found themselves tied to the stake. I do hope that happens here."

Fumento also points out that he criticized Monsanto publicly in a 1999 Forbes magazine column, calling the company "chicken-hearted" for caving in to pressure from environmentalists to terminate a seed program. "I acted completely ethically, and within a month or two nobody will doubt that," Fumento says.

While Fumento doesn't think he should have disclosed the payments to his readers, Hudson's CEO Kenneth R. Weinstein is less sure. Asked if the scholar should have disclosed his financial relationship with Monsanto, Weinstein pauses and says, "that's a good question, period."


UM Researcher Cites GE Contamination

Bangor Daily News
January 13, 2006

Genetic Herbicide Resistance Found in Seeds

AUGUSTA - Maine farmers cannot be 100 percent sure that the canola seeds they purchase to grow on their farms do not contain genetically engineered traits, a University of Maine agriculture research professor said this week.

Tests conducted last fall on research crops in northern Maine and Vermont indicated that the conventional crops and seeds contained genetically engineered DNA - DNA altered to allow crops not to be affected by herbicide applications - even though separated from GE plots.

"The genie is out of the bottle," professor John Jemison declared Wednesday during a presentation of his findings.

The issue of contaminated seeds goes straight to the heart of the organic industry, which prides itself on the purity of its natural products. Maine potato farmers were hoping that Jemison's research would indicate that canola was a profitable and soil-benefiting rotational crop.

Jemison's findings mirror those released in a study in 2004 by the Union of Concerned Scientists that found GE DNA is contaminating traditional seeds in three major U.S. crops - corn, soybeans and canola. The UCS, headquartered in Cambridge, Mass., is an independent nonprofit alliance of more than 100,000 concerned citizens and scientists.

The UCS policy is that seed contamination, left unchecked, could disrupt agricultural trade, unfairly burden the organic industry and allow hazardous materials into the food supply.

Jemison was part of a three-plot research project last summer that grew conventional and genetically engineered canola on a total of 50 acres in Presque Isle, Orono and Vermont. Canola seed is grown in Maine for its oil and to be plowed under to enrich the soil.

The GE and non-GE seeds for last fall's project were seeds left over from previous field trials at Orono and donated seeds from several seed companies.

Speaking Wednesday at the Maine Agricultural Trades Show in Augusta, Jemison said that after harvest, tests were conducted on 4,500 conventionally grown canola plants.

"We found contamination, or genetic resistance to herbicides, in five out of the six [genetic] lines," Jemison said, a condition that could not have been caused by current-season drift from GE crops.

This means that conventional canola seeds already are contaminated with GE-resistance traits, he said, and farmers cannot be 100 percent sure they are getting purely organic seeds.

According to the UCS, seed becomes contaminated when a conventional crop being grown for seed production is located downwind from a field growing GE crops. GE pollen, blown by the wind, pollinates the conventional crops, and some of those seeds contain the DNA from the GE crop.

The UCS says the seed producer, unaware of the contamination, harvests the seed and sends it to a seed production facility to be processed and bagged. Farmers then purchase the seed, marketed as pure, traditional seed, and the crops they grow produce crops with the genetically engineered DNA.

Russell Libby, executive director of the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, said Maine's 301 certified organic farmers are extremely concerned about adulterated seeds and GE crop drift.

"So far, we've been fortunate not to have severe issues in Maine, but the organic consumer is looking for non-GE food, and it is our job to provide that," Libby said. "There are some real questions about whether crops with even a minuscule amount of GE DNA can be marketed as organic."

Maine's organic industry represents more than $10 million annually and is the state's fastest-growing agriculture segment, according to Libby.

"I continue to think Maine has an opportunity to carve out a different kind of agriculture, and that will be organic," he said.

Libby said many countries have a zero tolerance, and "we're trying in Maine to hold to that zero percent. The U.S. Department of Agriculture so far hasn't tackled this issue. It's been food buyers and consumers that are setting the standards."

Doug Johnson of the Maine Biotechnology Information Bureau said this week that he has not seen Jemison's study, but he added that "foreign genes in seed lines are nothing unusual. The Association of Official Seed Certifying Agencies tolerates 0.5 percent of seed of other varieties or off-types in a 'pure' seed."

Jemison said his research percentage fell within those parameters. Many countries importing U.S. crops and organic producers, however, will accept no level of foreign genes.

Jemison said he is visiting potato and canola farmers, presenting his research and letting them make up their own minds.

"But I'm telling them that we aren't seeing any benefits to GE canola," he said.

Jemison said the level of genetic alteration discovered was "certainly greater than the percent found to naturally occur in plants. In nature, there is about one in a trillion plants that will mutate and produce a natural resistance [to herbicides]."

As far as the yield of the conventional versus GE canola, Jemison said the results indicated that in some fields the GE yield was 100 pounds more an acre. Yield, however, is not the only consideration.

"But once you add in the cost of the herbicide and the technology fees [for the GE seeds], it is a completely different picture," Jemison said. "In the Orono trial, it turned out we could save $3 an acre not using the GE seeds.

"We concluded the GE strains provide no significant benefit, no positive response," he said.

Jemison said the GE crops originally were touted as a way to feed the world's hungry, but only Canada, the United States and Argentina have embraced them.

"In Europe, the opposition to GE foods is mostly cultural," he explained.

Jemison said the United States, however, takes the attitude of "innocent until proven guilty" and takes the approach of trying the new technologies without regard to culture.

"We take a fairly short-term view of our farming economies, and we need to rethink our policies," he said. "We need to look at eating as an agricultural event, not just to fill our stomachs."


Patents on Taro Hybrids Protested

By Mark Niesse
Associated Press
January 14, 2006

The taro plant, used to make poi, is a sacred ancestor of the Hawaiian people that can't be owned, protesters said yesterday.

Activists and farmers urged the University of Hawai'i to give up three of its patents on varieties of taro genetically enhanced by crossbreeding. About 20 people rallied in a small field of taro growing on the university's Manoa campus.

"The taro is our ancestor. It's not a commodity," said longtime Hawaiian activist Walter Ritte. "The University of Hawai'i cannot own our ancestors. They're setting the precedent for the rest of the world to come here and start patenting things."

According to Hawaiian belief, the cosmic first couple gave birth to a stillborn, Haloa, from whose gnarled body sprang the broad-leafed plant whose bulb-like corms are ground into one of Hawai'i's best-known foods. The Hawaiian people, it is believed, came from a second brother, making the plant part of their common ancestry.

The three lines of taro patented by the University of Hawai'i share a lineage that dates to the Polynesian taro first brought to the Islands centuries ago, Ritte said. Since the fourth or fifth century, taro has been crossbred thousands of times by Hawaiian farmers to create new strains of the plant.

"The idea that one generation of people could claim ownership of something that's much older than we are is ridiculous," said David Strauch, a taro farmer who grows traditional varieties on O'ahu. "Taro is so central to Hawaiian culture."

A spokeswoman for the college where the scientists did their work on taro said their varieties of taro are distinct from those found naturally.

These three types of taro are more resistant to leaf blight and root rot, and they grow bigger than wild varieties, according to the 2002 patent applications.

"They took something that wasn't working 100 percent, and they basically came out with a new variety," said Ania Wieczorek, spokeswoman for the College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources. "This isn't just something found in the wild. They took something and made it much better."

Ritte claimed in a letter to the dean of the college that patents should not have been granted for these genetically enhanced plants. He wrote that the patents were given in 2002 based on preliminary observations that have not been confirmed by controlled experiments.

The patents require farmers who use these varieties to pay licensing fees to the university and to let officials onto their property to study the plants. Farmers may not sell the seeds.

It would be up to the scientists who own the patents to revoke them, Wieczorek said.

Ritte said that if they do not give up these taro patents, he plans to take legal action before the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

Ritte has gone to battle with the university before over the genetic modification of taro. As a result, the university agreed in May to stop experiments on Hawaiian varieties of taro because of cultural concerns that it was tampering with native species.


Down on the Biopharm, Missouri Plows Ahead

By Rachel Melcer
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Jan. 14 2006

Attracting and growing biopharm companies - those that genetically engineer crops to produce drugs or polymers - is just one play in Missouri's bid to build a biotech industry.

But it is an important one, because it trumps the concerns of outstate voters and legislators who now see the state's spending on biotech as a benefit only to St. Louis and Kansas City. The burgeoning biopharm business is a potential boon to farm income and rural economies.

So, Missouri is offering financial incentives to a pair of biopharm firms, with mixed results.

Chlorogen Inc., a startup company based at the Nidus Center for Scientific Enterprise in Creve Coeur, has decided to contract with farmers and build a processing plant in Cape Girardeau in about a year, said Chief Executive David Duncan.

The company was wooed by Kentucky, Florida and South Carolina, but Missouri offered the best financial package, he said.

Ventria Bioscience, a Sacramento, Calif.-based company, had planned to relocate to Maryville, Mo., but the deal fell through when federal and state grants failed to materialize. Missouri officials say they still are talking with Ventria in hopes of bringing the company to the state, but the discussion has gone back to the drawing board.

"We've also got feelers out to a number of other companies," said Mike Mills, deputy director of the Missouri Department of Economic Development. "We do focus very heavily on the biotech industry, and (biopharming) just happens to be a subset that provides an opportunity for rural Missouri to benefit greatly."

Even if these efforts succeed, a jackpot is not assured. Scientists agree that biopharming technology can work, but it is controversial.

There are concerns that plants engineered to grow non-food proteins might cross-pollinate with unmodified neighbors and contaminate food and animal feed supplies. Industry proponents say scientific and physical precautions can be taken to prevent this - growing the proteins in non-food crops, such as the tobacco produced by Chlorogen, or raising modified food plants in areas distant from crops that will be eaten, as Ventria proposed to do by growing rice in northwestern Missouri instead of the state's Bootheel.

Chlorogen also is using chloroplast cells of tobacco leaves to express the pharmaceutical proteins, and these cells do not play a part in reproduction.

But regulatory agencies are playing catch-up with the science, which is developing at a rapid pace. Strict rules need to be developed to manage biopharm crops, and it is unknown how these will affect the industry, said Roger Beachy, president of the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in Creve Coeur and chair of Gov. Matt Blunt's Advisory Council for Plant Biotechnology.

"There is a lot of hard science and good regulations to be developed as (this) industry develops," Beachy said. But he believes it can succeed.

Proponents also say biopharming can be lucrative, though the size of the payoff and its beneficiaries are in question.

A recent report by agriculture economist Robert Wisner of Iowa State University, commissioned by the nonprofit Union of Concerned Scientists, said most of the benefit of biopharm crops would flow to big pharmaceutical companies rather than to farmers.

Most industry observers agree that the small biotech startups developing this technology will need to partner with these large corporations in order to fund the years of clinical trials and big marketing efforts needed to sell any therapeutic drug.

Chlorogen needs to secure such a deal before building operations in Cape Girardeau, Duncan said.

But growers and rural towns can benefit if production facilities are built near farm fields, as Chlorogen and Ventria have planned. Missouri has engineering and processing talent that can be employed in biopharming, said Perry Wong, senior economist with the Milken Institute, a think tank in Santa Monica, Calif.

"It's a region (where) agriculture meets industry," he said. "It's only natural, and with very good synergy, that the area try to bring in some new technology ... to maximize the benefit to the state in job creation and building."

The technology offers a way to turn commodity farming into a high-value niche production system, said Jason Garst, a farmer in Watson, Mo., who has contracted with Ventria to produce its biopharm rice. "It's simply the next level of technology that's going to allow us growers to remain profitable."

The key to keep in mind is that it's a niche industry, said Judith Kjelstrom, a microbiologist and director of the biotechnology program at the University of California, Davis.

"Some of the (political) leadership in the Midwest got caught up in, 'Wow, this is high-value farming.' And it is. But it's not going to be the acreage that you're used to seeing with soybeans and corn," Kjelstrom said, comparing its market potential to that of organic farming.

Beachy said the state's goal is to pursue a variety of high-tech, value-added agricultural biotech specialties, not just biopharming.

For example, Creve Coeur-based Monsanto Co., the world's leading producer of genetically modified crops, is developing soybeans and corn for food use that have added nutritional or processing benefits. Researchers at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center are engaged in similar work.

Beachy agreed with Kjelstrom that biopharming alone is not likely to be a huge industry - unless it is embraced by the pharmaceutical giants. But he said he is confident that Missouri would be a good home for it.

The state also could gain from biopharming by boosting its overall image as a high-tech hot spot, Kjelstrom said.

"Any state that gets into promoting this technology, it's going to be successful," she said. "If you can say biopharming is alive and well in Missouri, you'll be seen as really visionary people."

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