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Anheuser-Busch backs down from boycott threat against GM rice in Missouri

Striking a compromise with biotech company Ventria, Anheuser-Busch backed down Friday from its threat to boycott all rice grown in Missouri if Ventria was allowed to grow genetically modified rice in the state.

Ventria, which wants to grow a form of GM rice in southeast Missouri, agreed not to plant any of its GM rice within 120 miles of other rice fields because of Anheuser-Busch's concerns about GM rice contaminating the commercial rice it uses for brewing. In exchange for Ventria's 120-mile buffer zone, A-B agreed to not to boycott rice from Missouri, the sixth-largest rice-producing state and home to A-B's headquarters.

Ventria is still waiting to receive a permit from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to grow its GM rice in Missouri. In 2004, the USDA denied Ventria a permit to grow it in California. The company was then welcomed into Missouri by Northwest Missouri State University in an effort to boost Missouri's life sciences economy.

Anheuser-Busch on its Web site says it uses rice to balance its beers' taste, and that the company is the largest purchaser of rice in the United States, accounting for more than 8 percent of domestic rice consumption. The company owns rice mills in Arkansas and California.

Ventria's controversial rice crops are engineered to produce two human proteins that help boost the human immune system, and could possibly help children in developing countries fight dehydration due to diarrhea and respiratory infections.

Missouri Gov. Matt Blunt welcomed the agreement between Anheuser-Busch and Ventria in a statement, calling it "a fair compromise that furthers cutting-edge life-science technology while protecting current markets for Missouri rice farmers."

But not everybody approves the compromise.

Jeffrey Smith, a former executive for a GMO testing company and author of the GMO-critical book Seeds of Deception (Yes! Books, 2003), said Anheuser-Busch is taking a larger risk in letting Ventria grow its GM rice in Missouri than it would have if it had boycotted Missouri rice altogether. Smith said the 120-mile buffer zone is not enough to protect Missouri's commercial rice crops from contamination from Ventria's GM rice.

"History has shown that safeguards have not been successful," Smith said. "And yet they are risking their real business and products."

Ventria claimed its rice will not contaminate other crops because it is self-pollinating, but Smith said the points of contamination, including animals, seeds stuck to muddy shoes and even tornadoes, are so vast it doesn't matter whether the crop is cross- or self-pollinating.

"There are not confinement strategies that work," Smith said. "Anheuser-Busch has taken poor advice saying that [Ventria's] product is safe." Anheuser-Busch representatives declined to comment.

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