Busch to Boycott State's Rice
if Genetic Alterations Allowed
By Scott Canon
The Kansas City Star
April 12, 2005
Commodity-buying behemoth Anheuser-Busch Cos. has vowed to boycott Missouri's 30 million-bushel rice crop if genetically altered, drug-making plants are grown in the state.
The beer maker, the country's single largest rice buyer, last week told Missouri growers it would not buy their rice if a firm that recently moved from California wins permission to plant about 150 acres of pharmaceutical grain in the rice-rich Bootheel region.
"Anheuser-Busch holds the trump card. If they say they're not going to buy any rice if this (pharmaceutical) rice is planted, then don't plant," said Dan Jennings, a grower from Sikeston, Mo., who had previously supported the experimental crop. An Anheuser-Busch boycott "puts pressure on everybody else who buys Missouri rice to defend it."
The brewer has long opposed Ventria Bioscience's plans.
Ventria wants to grow rice genetically engineered to produce lactoferrin and lysozyme — substances found in human tears, saliva and mother's milk and used for digestive problems. Currently they can be extracted from mother's milk for up to $30,000 a gram or drawn from chicken eggs with the chance of triggering allergic reactions. The rice is not yet approved for human consumption.
Anheuser-Busch contends too many ways exist — from human error to flooding to the movement of animals — for the pharmaceutical rice to invade commercial varieties.
"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," said Jim Hoffmeister, Busch's group vice president for procurement, logistics and agricultural resources.
"It freezes the rice grower in Missouri out of selling to this huge customer," said Paul Combs, a grower and implement dealer near Kennett. "We think it's indicative of the pattern other companies will take."
The beer company is joined in opposing Ventria's plans by the USA Rice Federation, the U.S. Rice Producers Association and Riceland Foods Inc., a farmer-owned cooperative and the world's largest rice miller and marketer. Anheuser-Busch, however, is alone in its boycott.
The U.S. Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service has said Ventria's plan "should not have a significant impact, either individually or cumulatively, on the quality of the human environment" but has not weighed in on the economic impact.
The firm still must get federal approval for its plans. States are consulted during such permit processes, and Missouri has been solidly behind Ventria. A spokeswoman for Gov. Matt Blunt said Monday that he supports Ventria's plans despite Anheuser-Busch's position, saying the "science is sound."
Last year the company decided to move its headquarters from Sacramento, Calif., to Maryville, Mo., to form a partnership with Northwest Missouri State University, which offered free office space and a promise of investment in plant research. The university's president, Dean Hubbard, has since joined Ventria's board of directors without compensation.
Hubbard speculated that opposition from Riceland Foods comes from worries that the cooperative won't be able to pay farmers as much as Ventria promises. He said Anheuser-Busch's worries about contamination are unfounded. The university president said any risks — he characterized them as minimal as "anything when you're dealing with nature" — should be weighed against how the cheap production of drugs promised by pharmaceutical rice could save children in developing countries.
"What this boils down to is beer or babies," Hubbard said.
The company now has a proposal pending with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to grow its rice in the southeast Missouri counties of Cape Girardeau, Scott and Mississippi — within 5 miles of some commercial paddies.
The company chose self-pollinating crops such as rice and barley to prevent wind from carrying the pollen to other crops.
The Union of Concerned Scientists recently studied the breeding of drugs into corn and soybeans — soybeans are self-pollinating, corn is not — and concluded that contamination is virtually inevitable.
Missouri's rice crop in 2004, nearly all of it grown on 200,000 acres in the rich and soggy soil of the Bootheel, was worth about $95 million to farmers. Those fields sit next to 1.6 million acres of rice in Arkansas — or about half the nation's crop.