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December 2009 Updates

Beijing Gives Nod to Modified Rice

By Andrew Batson And James T. Areddy
Wall Street Journal online
December 1, 2009

China's government declared two strains of genetically modified rice safe to produce and consume, taking a major step toward endorsing the use of biotechnology in the staple food crop of billions of people in Asia.

In a written reply to questions from The Wall Street Journal, China's Ministry of Agriculture said Monday that it had issued safety certificates to domestically developed strains of genetically modified rice and corn, after a years-long process involving trial production and environmental tests. Further approvals are required before the strains can be grown on a commercial scale, the ministry said, and industry participants said it may take two to three more years for the rice to reach production.

Foreign companies that produce genetically modified crops welcomed the news. "It's good news in the context of commercial introduction of biotechnology in crops in China," said Andrew McConville, the Singapore-based head of corporate affairs in Asia for Syngenta AG, a Switzerland-based agribusiness firm.

China is the world's top producer and consumer of rice, so its use of modified varieties has the potential to alter the grain's global supply patterns. Widespread production has the potential to complicate trade with places such as Europe that restrict genetically modified foods.

On the other side, U.S. companies have been urging China to speed up its approval process for genetically modified crops.

Chinese officials have been less constrained by public pressure over the sometimes-controversial use of biotechnology in food than officials in other countries. The government has long supported research into agricultural biotechnology as part of a drive to ensure the nation remains self-sufficient in staple crops.

"This is an important achievement in independent intellectual property from our country's research into genetic modification technology, and creates a good basis for commercial production," the Ministry of Agriculture said.

Genetically modified corn, cotton and soybeans are grown in the U.S., Canada, Argentina and other countries, but genetically modified rice hasn't been grown on a major scale anywhere. Most such crops now available, including the ones developed in China, have been modified to resist pests or herbicides -- traits that appeal to farmers eager to boost output.

Recent efforts at genetic modification have aimed at creating benefits more noticeable to consumers. The International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines has been working on developing so-called golden rice, which is genetically modified to include vitamin A.


Crony of Agriculture Chief Now a Monsanto Lobbyist

By Timothy P. Carney
The Washington Examiner
December 12, 2009

Jerry Crawford, an Iowa lawyer and lobbyist with deep ties to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, recently registered as the Washington representative for Monsanto, a biotechnology and agrichemical giant that embodies the "special interests" President Obama planned to drive from the temple of federal government.

The Des Moines Register calls Crawford a "well-connected, high-profile Des Moines lawyer" and "Democratic power broker."

Examine his record, and you see what the paper means. Crawford was once chairman of the Iowa Democratic Party. He was the Iowa chairman for the presidential campaigns of Michael Dukakis, Bill Clinton, Al Gore and John Kerry. In 2008, he was Hillary Clinton's Midwest campaign chairman.

Of greater significance today, he is also a "longtime Vilsack friend and adviser," a "Vilsack ally," a "top Vilsack insider," and "a guru for and a big friend of Gov. Tom Vilsack," according to the Register.

In 1998, Crawford got in near the ground floor of Vilsack's rise in politics, putting his reputation and wealth behind the long shot gubernatorial candidate. Crawford hosted at least one fundraiser for Vilsack that year, which netted $23,000.

Questions arose early in Vilsack's tenure about conflicts regarding Crawford's work as a lobbyist and his closeness to Vilsack. A 1999 Register article reported that Vilsack, before firing members of the gambling commission disliked by the casinos, had raised $17,000 from gambling interests. "Most of the $17,000 Vilsack received came from Jerry Crawford, a lawyer for the Iowa Greyhound Association," the article reported.

At play here is not likely a quid pro quo or bribery, but just a close friendship: Crawford donates to his friend's campaign, and Vilsack takes his friend's calls on state issues. But this chumminess is exactly how special interest politics works. And the chumminess runs deep.

In 2001, as Vilsack ran for re-election, Crawford was Vilsack's top individual donor, giving him $31,000. When Vilsack traveled the Midwest stumping for Kerry in 2004, Crawford was one of Gov. Vilsack's two travel mates, according to CNN.

So, Sen. Kerry, Secretary of State Clinton and Secretary Vilsack are all tight with Crawford. And Vilsack and Hillary Clinton, Crawford told me, are "good friends, and have been for a long, long time."

Although Obama was Crawford's third choice in 2008 (after Vilsack and then Clinton), Crawford still ponied up a $10,000 check for the Obama Victory Fund last August. This contribution didn't violate Obama's no-lobbyist-cash pledge because Crawford was lobbying only state government (with Monsanto as a client), not the federal government.

But now Crawford has registered to represent Monsanto in Washington on "Competition/antitrust issues within the agricultural industry; environmental laws, regulations and policies related to the agricultural industry," according to a Nov. 10 filing. Monsanto is a multinational corporation most famous for its genetically modified seeds and for its herbicide Roundup. The company is also a leading member of the Biotechnology Industry Organization, which in 2001 named Vilsack governor of the year.

This situation -- the agriculture secretary's top fundraiser, top donor and longtime confidant serving as a Monsanto lobbyist -- would seem to create an awkward situation for the Obama administration given the president's pledges to crush lobbyist influence. Crawford tells me he hasn't met with anyone yet on Monsanto's behalf. I called and e-mailed Vilsack's office Monday asking if he would meet with Crawford in the future if Crawford requested a meeting. By Tuesday evening, Vilsack's office hadn't responded.

Monsanto's lobbying army already has made an incursion into the Obama administration. The top food safety adviser at the Department of Health and Human Services is Michael Taylor, Monsanto's former vice president for government affairs. As I reported in my column on Friday, Obama has nominated Isi Siddiqui to be his agriculture trade representative; Siddiqui is the vice president for regulatory affairs and a former lobbyist at CropLife America, which is a pro-pesticide lobbying coalition of which Monsanto is a prominent member.

Monsanto, lying at the intersection of agriculture and biotechnology, is deeply dependent on government favor. The company stands to benefit from the House's global warming bill, which subsidizes biofuels and gives carbon credits to farmers who control weeds with herbicides rather than tilling the ground. Also, the company constantly fights to ward off new regulations on pesticides and genetically modified food.

Monsanto is a poster boy for special interests and is a favorite target of the environmental Left. With Secretary Vilsack's fundraiser, donor and confidant carrying its flag, Monsanto figures to have even more clout in Washington.


$2 million Verdict against Bayer CropScience

By Joe Whittington and Andrew M. Harris
Bloomberg News
December 05, 2009

Bayer CropScience LP must pay about $2 million for losses sustained by two Missouri farmers when an experimental variety of rice the company was testing cross-bred with their crops, a federal jury ruled.

Friday's verdict in St. Louis came in the first trial in what is intended to be a series of test cases against the unit of Leverkusen, Germany-based Bayer AG. The jury of four men and five women began deliberating Wednesday, about a month after it began hearing claims brought by Kenneth Bell and Johnny Hunter.

Farmers from Missouri, Arkansas, Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi have filed more than 1,000 similar cases against Bayer since the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced in August 2006 that trace amounts of the genetically modified LibertyLink rice were found in U.S. long-grain rice stocks.

Bayer and Louisiana State University had been testing the rice, bred to be resistant to Bayer's Liberty-brand herbicide, at a school-run facility in Crowley, La. The variety eventually "contaminated" more than 30 percent of U.S. ricelands, Don Downing, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, said at the start of the trial.

The jury awarded only compensatory damages and rejected the farmers' request for a punitive judgment. Grant Davis, one of the farmers' lawyers, had told jurors an $80 million punitive award was "not too much to send a message."

Within four days of the 2006 USDA announcement, rice futures plunged, costing U.S. growers about $150 million, according to a consolidated complaint filed by the farmers.

The jury awarded Bell $1.96 million and Hunter $53,336. Bayer's negligence cost Bell more than $2.2 million, Downing said during the trial. Hunter quit rice farming and lost $50,000 because of the contamination, Downing said.

While the USDA later approved Bayer CropScience's biotech rice to be grown and sold for human consumption, it hasn't been commercially marketed. The USDA never determined how the LibertyLink rice entered the nation's long-grain rice supply, Bayer CropScience's statement said.

The next test, or bellwether trial, involving farmers from Arkansas and Mississippi, is scheduled to start on Jan. 11 in St. Louis.


Plaintiffs to Demand Immediate Seed Ban

By Wes Sander
Capitol Press, Oregon
December 12, 2009

Attorney says seeds too dangerous to be allowed anywhere

An attorney in a lawsuit challenging federal approval of genetically modified sugar beet seeds says plaintiffs will try to stop growers from planting the seeds next year.

In September, federal Judge Jeffery White ordered USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service to produce an environmental impact statement to support its deregulation of seed developer Monsanto's Roundup Ready seeds.

The decision came in a suit filed in January 2008 by the Center for Food Safety, Organic Seed Alliance, Sierra Club and High Mowing Organic Seeds.

At a procedural hearing in U.S. district court in San Francisco on Friday, Dec. 4, White set a June date for a hearing on whether, or under what conditions, growers can use the seeds while APHIS completes the environmental document.

That means the planting season will have passed before the court decides whether the seeds can be used. Earthjustice attorney Paul Atchitoff said he will ask the court for a preliminary injunction to bar production or use of the seeds until the permanent injunction is in place.

"Our position is that there are damaging effects that cannot be avoided except by (disallowing the seeds)," Atchitoff said.

A seed ban would impact most domestic producers, who would need to find conventional seeds for next year's crop. Industry watchers say there's likely enough conventional seed to go around, but the varieties won't be as well-tailored to growing regions and pest pressures as are genetically modified seeds.

The U.S. sugar beet industry contends it would suffer billions of dollars in losses if Roundup Ready varieties are banned next year, according to attorneys representing growers and processors.

"At this point, a halt on planting Roundup Ready sugar beet seed for the 2010 root crop in 10 states would create severe seed shortages in many areas of the country and pose other very significant problems potentially resulting in billions of dollars in damages to thousands of sugar beet farmers, to cooperatives and processors and to communities across the country... " attorneys Gilbert S. Keteltas, John F. Bruce, Christopher H. Marroro of Washington, D.C., and Joanne Lichtman of Los Angeles, said in court documents filed in the case.

At the Dec. 4 court appearance, attorneys for the industry came prepared to argue for an evidentiary hearing -- one with live witnesses, allowing a more forceful argument against an injunction.

But White said he would accept arguments before the hearing only in written form, and set dates beginning in March for plaintiffs and defendants to submit briefs.

The June hearing date could be changed, White said, if the court decides an evidentiary hearing is warranted.

Atchitoff asked White to move the case forward in hopes of having an injunction before spring.

"Much of what we are asking for will be moot," he said.

But White said altering the schedule would be difficult.

"We're talking about four months to have a complete round of briefing," he said. "I don't see that as being possible. It forces the court to totally reorganize the schedule."

Luther Markwart, executive vice president of the American Sugarbeet Growers Association, said he's happy with White's schedule because it allows time for a deliberative process.

"This is a big decision," Markwart said. "And you want to make sure that you're able to depose people, and you're able to present documents that you feel are relevant."

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