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California Bill on GE Rice Segregation Threatens GE Industry

Sacramento Bee
September 2, 2000
Biotech backers feel targeted by rice bill
By Dale Kasler Bee Staff Writer

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.

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