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2-Plants: U.S. brewery Anheuser-Busch against GE pharma rice



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TITLE:  Beer giant foams at biotech rice plan
SOURCE: Sacramento Bee, USA, by Dale Kasler
       
http://www.sacbee.com/user_registration/login/?goto=http%3A//www.sacbee.com/content/business/story/12718370p-13570641c.html
DATE:   13 Apr 2005

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Beer giant foams at biotech rice plan

The tiny Sacramento biotech firm just wanted to develop new drugs. It became
an unlikely nomad hounded by farmers, anti-biotech activists and ... the
King of Beers.

Essentially driven from California because of opposition to its biotech rice
crops, Sacramento-based Ventria Bioscience thought it had found greener
pastures and a new home in Missouri.

But Anheuser-Busch, the St. Louis brewing giant that is the nation's largest
consumer of rice, says it will boycott Missouri's entire rice crop if
Ventria's genetically engineered rice is grown in the state. Anheuser-Busch
said it fears Ventria's rice could become commingled with conventional
Missouri-grown rice.

"Given the potential for contamination of commercial rice production in this
state, we will not purchase any rice produced or processed in Missouri if
Ventria introduces its 'pharma' rice here," Anheuser-Busch Vice President
Jim Hoffmeister said in a prepared statement.

Ventria Chief Executive Scott Deeter said Tuesday that the company will
forge ahead with plans to grow rice on 204 acres in Missouri. He said
Anheuser-Busch is "not the only buyer" of rice in Missouri, and farmers who
have agreed to grow the crop will stick by Ventria despite the threatened
boycott.

But the brewer's threat is likely to ratchet up the political pressure on
Ventria, which is still in Sacramento but plans to move its headquarters
and other operations to Missouri in about a year.

Ventria, started by a biologist from the University of California, Davis,
has grown small quantities of genetically modified rice in California for
several years but ran into fierce opposition around the state.

California rice farmers got a law passed in 2000 that led to stringent rules
for growing biotech rice. The farmers believed that customers, still wary of
biotech food products, might completely shun California's $370 million rice
crop.

Protesters demonstrated at Ventria's offices. Just as Ventria was about to
expand its plantings last year, state officials put the plans on hold,
saying there hadn't been sufficient public comment.

Last fall the 12-employee company said it would move its headquarters to
Maryville, Mo., where it found a friendly business partner in Northwest
Missouri State University. The university agreed to provide $5 million in
venture capital and to build a campus biotech center with offices for
Ventria. University President Dean Hubbard became an unpaid member of
Ventria's board of directors.

Ventria wants to use rice as a means of making lysozyme and lactoferrin, two
proteins that could be used to develop powerful anti-diarrhea drugs.

The company made plans to grow rice this spring in the Bootheel region of
Missouri, home to the state's $95 million rice industry. The proposal,
which is being considered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, has become
as explosive in Missouri as it was in California.

Rice farmers have protested. So has Riceland Foods Inc., a giant rice-buying
cooperative based in neighboring Arkansas. Then came the boycott threat from
Anheuser-Busch, which uses rice to improve the taste of its beer and buys 8
percent of the entire U.S. rice crop.

Northwest Missouri State spokesman Frank Veeman said he doesn't think the
blast from Budweiser will derail Ventria's move to Missouri.

"I think it's another hurdle we'll have to work through," he said.

Missouri Gov. Matt Blunt still supports the Ventria plan, his spokesman told
the Kansas City Star. But Ventria's opponents believe Anheuser-Busch's
threat could influence state officials.

"I think they're going to open their ears now and listen," said rice farmer
Sonny Martin, president of the Missouri Rice Research and Merchandising
Council.

Ventria's woes demonstrate the continuing controversy over agricultural
biotech. Ventria is in the relatively new field of "biopharming," the
business of producing medicines from crops.

"There's a lot of controversy, a lot of policy uncertainty," said Colin
Carter, a farm economist at the University of California, Davis. "I don't
think the policymakers, the USDA, have really figured it out."

Lisa Dry, a spokeswoman for the Biotechnology Industry Organization, said,
"Anheuser-Busch is a company that certainly uses technology for their
product. It's very disappointing to see them turning away from another
technology."

Deeter insisted Ventria could make sure its rice doesn't get mingled with
traditional rice crops.

In California, "we used a totally closed system," he said.

But many rice farmers and some customers, such as Anheuser-Busch, don't
believe it.

"Maybe three, five years from now it'll be OK," said Martin, the Missouri
farmer. "But right now is not the right time. Why did you all (in
California) run them out of there?"

Deeter has said Ventria wasn't leaving California to escape controversy but
was lured by Missouri's abundant land and water, plus the commitment from
the university.




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