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September 6, 2000


California bill to hinder Biotech


> The governor of California is now considering signing a bill designed to
> limit biotech rice in California. I am including a copy of an article in
> last Saturday's Sacramento Bee. I am also including a copy of the letter I
> sent to Governor Davis urging him to veto the bill. I urge all interested
> parties to write to the governor before he establishes his position. The
> text of the bill can be viewed at:
> http://www.leginfo.ca.gov/pub/bill/asm/ab_2601-2650/ab_2622_bill_20000823_
> enrolled.html
> Biotech backers feel targeted by rice bill
> By Dale Kasler
> Bee Staff Writer
> (Published Sept. 2, 2000)
> In a dispute with implications for California biotechnology and the
> Sacramento Valley's rice industry, some biotech executives say a bill that
> passed the California Legislature recently could make it difficult, if not
> impossible, to sell genetically engineered rice in the state.
> The bill, awaiting Gov. Gray Davis' signature, would establish standards
> for keeping different varieties of rice separate from each other -- and
> would impose a fee on the sale of certain types of seeds.
> Although the bill doesn't specifically mention biotech or genetic
> engineering, and the bill's backers say they are merely trying to help
> California rice growers market their products worldwide, some in the
> biotech industry believe the measure is targeted at them.
> Under the bill's standards, "biotech rice will be characterized as bad
> rice," said David Higgins, states affairs manager for rice-seed
> manufacturer Aventis CropScience Inc.
> The controversy raises the biotech debate to a new level. The industry,
> already under siege from environmental and food-safety groups, now
> apparently is locking horns with some of its own customers: farmers. The
> bill, AB 2622, was sponsored by the California Rice Commission, a trade
> group representing growers and millers.
> Peggy Lemaux, a biotech expert at the University of California, Berkeley,
> said rice growers are leery of antagonizing customers, particularly in
> foreign markets where biotech foods have a bad reputation.
> "It's taken a while for California rice to gain acceptance in Japan," she
> said. "(Growers) don't want to lose that market."
> About 40 percent of California's $320 million-plus rice crop is exported,
> much of it to Japan, where anti-biotech bias is strong.
> Higgins said the commission is "trying to protect the status quo. They're
> trying to live in the past, and that's where they're going to be stuck
> when this technology is introduced.
> "I'm a little worried about California's future as far as biotechnology is
> concerned," Higgins said.
> Aventis is a French agribusiness and pharmaceutical company that's
> developing a genetically engineered variety of rice resistant to
> herbicide. It wouldn't sell the product in California if the bill becomes
> law, Higgins said.
> "The big losers will be the rice growers of California," Higgins said.
> Frank Hagie Jr., chief executive of a small Sacramento firm that's trying
> to grow biotech rice, said the bill would probably force his company to
> find farmers in other states to grow its product.
> "If the farmers do or don't like us, I can live with that," said Hagie,
> whose firm is called Applied Phytologics Inc. "But I want a level playing
> field; I don't want a trade organization trying to run us out of the
> state."
> Davis' spokeswoman, Hilary McLean, said the governor hasn't yet taken a
> position on the bill, which breezed through both houses of the
> Legislature.
> Agricultural biotech has come under attack from critics who say the foods
> might be unsafe and the seeds might cause environmental harm. Some food
> companies, such as Frito-Lay and Gerber, have banned biotech ingredients,
> and the European Union has erected barriers to keep many biotech foods
> out.
> Up to now, California farmers have been mostly spared these wrenching
> controversies. The major commodity crops that can be grown with biotech
> seeds -- corn, soybeans, potatoes -- mostly are grown in other states. One
> exception is genetically engineered cotton, which accounts for estimated
> 10 percent to 15 percent of California's cotton crop.
> In time, however, biotechnology is expected to hit the rice industry --
> and tomatoes, strawberries, lettuce and many other California crops --
> suggesting that the controversy over AB 2622 could offer a preview of
> future debates that await California growers, say biotech executives
> concerned about the bill.
> Those critics have it all wrong, says Tim Johnson, executive director of
> the rice commission.
> Johnson said the bill is intended merely to establish rules under which
> growers, shippers and others in the rice industry keep different varieties
> from being commingled.
> The bill reflects the new realities in global rice markets, where food
> processors are demanding shipments that consist of one type of rice and no
> other, he said.
> A special committee of rice industry experts, appointed by the California
> secretary of food and agriculture, in consultation with the rice
> commission, would enforce the standards.
> "All it does is create a code of ethics if you were to grow rice that was
> atypical of the industry," said Lorenzo Pope, a rice researcher who helped
> craft the legislation.
> Johnson acknowledged that his group had decreed biotech rice crops should
> be separated from conventional rice at every stage of production and
> distribution.
> "There are some rices that are appropriate to be kept separate," he said.
> Johnson insisted the bill isn't an attempt to halt genetic engineering.
> "We are very supportive of biotechnology," he said.
> Assemblyman Richard Dickerson, R-Redding, who carried the bill, is equally
> adamant.
> "It's not an attempt on the rice industry's part or my part to be
> anti-biotech," Dickerson said "I think biotech has a great future."
> But Lemaux and others said the bill, while carefully worded, will hurt the
> spread of biotech rice in California.
> "They softened the language to make it less controversial," said Aventis'
> Higgins.
> Higgins said there's nothing wrong with making growers and shippers
> segregate different kinds of rice; Aventis will have growers do it when it
> introduces its biotech rice.
> But he said the bill goes beyond that. One big sticking point: The bill
> would impose a special fee on the sale of any rice seed that's deemed to
> have "characteristics of commercial impact."
> According to the bill, that refers to any rice that, if it got mixed in
> with a regular shipment, would lower the value of that shipment. Higgins
> and others said the phrase means biotech.
> The fee would be a maximum of $5 per hundred pounds of seed, which
> translates to about $8 for every acre planted, Higgins said. He called
> that "a fair sum of money" that would make it difficult to market biotech
> seeds in California.
> The rice commission's Johnson said the fee, which would cover the costs of
> enforcing the crop-segregation standards, wouldn't be a deterrent to seed
> buyers.
> __________________________________________________________________________
> ____________
> Dear Governor Davis,
> As a California Citizen and as an executive in an industry of great
> importance to our state, I urge you to veto AB2622. This bill is back
> door legislation to hinder the development of biotechnology in California.
> There is already adequate control of seed quality in the state in the
> guise of the existing seed certification program and USDA monitored chain
> of custody procedures. The special interest group that sponsored this
> legislation wants to limit the freedom of California farmers and
> researchers. The legilation controls the types of rice varieties that can
> be grown in the state both for commercial agriculture and for research
> purposes. The group that sponsored the legislation also hopes to increase
> the size of their budget by collecting fees as the gatekeepers of
> permission to grow their approved varieties.
> FACT: This bill is totally unnecessary. Rice is an inbreeding species,
> and unusual rice will not be able to cross-pollinate and contaminate
> commercial fields to levels unacceptable for Japanese markets.
> FACT: This bill hinders research. The University of California planned
> to oppose this legislation until the authors of this bill included an
> exception for University of California research. Biotech companies, and
> public researchers not associated with the University of California will
> still be hindered if this bill becomes law.
> FACT: If this bill become law, biotech companies will move their rice
> research activities to other states. California rice farmers will become
> the last to gain benefits from biotechnology, while growers in the
> Southern US will gain an advantage.
> FACT: Weeds are resistant to all of the herbicides currently approved for
> California rice production. The two earliest biotech rice crops will be
> herbicide resistant varieties that can help California farmers overcome
> this problem. These products will allow the replacement of existing
> herbicides with more environmentally friendly herbicides.
> FACT: Despite sponsor statements to the contrary, this legislation
> originated as a device to slow the entry of biotech crops into California.
> The authors changed the wording when they realized that the original draft
> bill would not gain enough support to pass. This legislation will place
> tremendous power in the hands of a few people; people have no right to
> limit the freedom of California farmers or researchers.
> Thank you for your attention,
> Mike
> Michael W. Lassner, Ph.D.
> Director, Agriculture Research and Development
> Maxygen, Inc.
> 515 Galveston Drive
> Redwood City, California 94063
> http://www.maxygen.com
> Phone: (650) 298-5451
> FAX : (650) 364-2715
> e-mail: mike.lassner@maxygen.com