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Greg Conko and CEI

Industry Lobbying for Genetic Engineered Crops in Australia

GM WATCH daily 4mar04


Last week Greg Conko of the U.S. "think tank", the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI), was in Australia on a U.S.-government funded tour, lobbying unsuccessfully for GM. The tour was also backed by the US's National Center for Food and Agriculture Policy, which pumps out scientific studies showing remarkable benefits from GM farming (see the profile below).

Greg Conko: Industry Lobbying for Genetic Engineered Crops in Australia GM WATCH daily 4mar04

Greg Conko
source 4apr04

While in Australia Conko admitted to journalist Bob Burton that CEI takes funding from Monsanto. Conko and CEI, it may be remembered, co-founded CS Prakash's AgBioWorld campaign. Indeed, the CEI describe Conko as "the Vice President and a member of the Board of Directors of the AgBioWorld Foundation, [which] he co-founded with Tuskegee University plant genetics professor C.S. Prakash". CEI also says that it played "a key role in the creation" of Prakash's petition for "agbiotech" as part of its wider campaign against "death by regulation" - a campaign that also takes in attacking restrictions on smoking. Philip Morris is another of the CEI's sponsors.

GM WATCH research has also shown that AgBioworld has intimate links to Monsanto's Internet PR firm, The Bivings Group, and that AgBioWorld and its listserv AgBioView have been used as a conduit for Monsanto/Bivings-inspired dirty tricks campaigns involving poison pen attacks on Monsanto's scientific and environmental critics - most infamously, a campaign of smears and attacks on the Berkeley researchers Quist and Chapela.

  1. Conko down-under
  2. CEI - GM WATCH profile
  3. Greg Conko - GM WATCH profile
  4. National Center for Food and Agriculture Policy - GM WATCH profile [see links for sources in the profiles]
  5. Time for the GM Moratorium to Go - GREGORY CONKO and C.S. PRAKASH / Wall Street Journal 13may03


For a profile of CS Prakash and AgBioWorld see: http://www.gmwatch.org/profile1.asp?PrId=106

1. Conko down-under


Bob Burton IPS-Inter Press Service April 1, 2004,

CANBERRA: For the last week, Gregory Conko from the conservative U.S. think tank, the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI), has faced an uphill battle in selling the benefits of genetic engineering (GE) to Australian governments and farmers.

That is because a string of decisions in the last two weeks by Australian state governments -- banning or placing a moratorium on the planting of genetically modified (GM) canola in order to prevent the loss of markets for wheat as well as non-GE canola -- has made Conko's U.S.-government funded tour appear obsolete.

"My understanding from some of the state officials in Tasmania and Western Australia is that they would prefer not to allow any GM crops so the entire state can have a reputation of being GM-free," Conko said. "In the short term this may be a rational marketing decision but in the long term I don't see that that is necessarily going to hold up."

While the U.S. Embassy organized Conko's tour in an attempt to shore up fading support among farmers for genetically engineered crops, the cost is being covered the National Centre for Food and Agricultural Policy, which in turn is funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Asked whether companies with genetic engineering interests fund the CEI, Conko said: "We do get a small amount of money from one biotech firm and a couple of food companies." While saying that less than a quarter of the CEI's agriculture programme funding comes from corporations, Conko confirmed that Monsanto is the biotechnology sponsor of the institute.

A genetic engineering campaigner with Greenpeace Australia, Jeremy Tager, believes Conko's tour is another signal of how desperate the U.S. government and companies like Monsanto have become.

"They have effectively lost the debate in the bulk of Australia and this is a desperate attempt to shore up their fading support," he said.

The Australian government's Federal Gene Technology Regulator has licensed for both Bayer and Monsanto the unconditional release of genetically engineered canola varieties. But strong opposition from farmers, agricultural marketing agencies and environmentalists has blocked the commercial release of the crops.

The last week has seen a stunning series of setbacks in the determination of the pro-genetic engineering proponents to press ahead with the commercial release of GE canola in Australia. Last week, Victoria decided to legislate for a four-year ban on the crop, and the Western Australian government legislated to keep the whole state free of genetically engineered crops indefinitely. This week the South Australian parliament is debating legislation to impose a moratorium on genetically engineered canola, and a similar bill is before the Australian Capital Territory parliament.

Colleen Ross, the National Farmers Union of Canada spokeswoman on genetically engineered crops, is also touring Australia, but with the support of environmental and anti-GE farmers groups. Ross, who farmed in Australia for many years before moving to Canada, has a word of warning for Australian farmers and governments considering the use of genetically engineered crops.

"I don't want Australian farmers to go through what we have gone through six or seven years down the track. We have Monsanto taking our farmers to court, we have complicated intellectual property rights and trade disputes. Far better just to say no," she said.

When Victorian Agriculture Minister Bob Cameron announced the state government's four-year ban last week on genetically engineered canola, he cited a market survey undertaken by the Australian Wheat Board. This, he said, "found that 30 percent of its wheat markets would have concerns if GM grain of any type was commercially grown in Victoria".

Tager of Greenpeace welcomes the decisions by the state governments, but sees as the next critical decision the imminent decision by the New South Wales government on whether it approves a massive 3,500-hectare 'trial' of GE canola.

"Unless there is intervention by the Premier or at Cabinet level, I don't think there is much doubt that the Minister for Agriculture will say yes to the planting," he said.

The implications of a go-ahead, he argues, are potentially massive.

"The estimate we have is that 3,500 hectares would contaminate 250,000 hectares of land at risk of contamination, that is a pretty conservative estimate based on fairly short distances of contamination occurring.

If you took the UK figure of contamination across 26 kilometers -- they can't explain it, but they found that there is nothing in NSW at all left GE-free," he said.

Conko argues that while there is often opposition to the introduction of GE crops, farmers largely learn to co-exist. "We found in North America that we can have GM agriculture and conventional agriculture and even organic agriculture co-exist more or less peacefully. There are some rough edges and its not foolproof but we have found a way to manage the problems that come about from coexistence," he said.

Ross dismisses the claims by supporters of GE that co-existence is possible. In January she was in court supporting Canadian farmer Percy Schmeiser, who is being sued by Monsanto over his contaminated crop that the company claims was in fact the unauthorized use of its technology.

"Farmers who are growing GE in Canada and the United States say 'it's our right to grow GE crop' but when they grow GE crops, us non-GE farmers lose our right to grow our non-GE crops because of the contamination," she pointed out.

Ross has a blunt message for Australian farmers and governments: "Why is Australia even considering it? My message to Australia is 'what the heck are you thinking?' "

[In fact, the New South wales government rejected the Monsanto and Bayer-backed large-scale GM trial]


2. CEI - GM WATCH profile


'Advancing the principles of free enterprise and limited government' is the declared mission of the Washington DC based Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI), launched in 1984 and claiming 'the largest free-market environmental policy program in Washington'. However, according to PR Watch , CEI in reality is 'a well-funded front for corporations' that attacks environmental, health and safety regulations.

CEI's President and Founder is Fred Smith. Its staff include Gregory Conko who is CEI's Director of Food Safety Policy. Via Conko CEI has played a key role in CS Prakash's AgBioWorld campaign .

The launch-pad for Prakash's campaign was a petition supporting the use of GM agriculture in developing countries. Prakash presented this as a Third World scientists' rallying point for fellow academics. However, CEI in its annual report (2000) says that it played 'a key role in the creation' of the petition as part of a wider campaign against 'death by regulation' - the same CEI campaign that has been directed against government efforts to discourage smoking because, according to the CEI, 'there are things more valuable than health'. More recently, Greg Conko has been acknowledged in AgBioWorld press releases as the co-founder of AgBioWorld .

Among CEI's long list of known sponsors are Philip Morris, Pfizer and Dow Chemicals. In 2000 CEI had a turnover of $3M+ a year with another million in assets.

CEI's 'Adjunct Scholars' include Henry Miller of the Hoover Institution and Fran Smith of Consumer Alert. Fran Smith is also on CEI's Board of Directors. She is also the wife of CEI's President and Founder. Another CEI 'Adjunct' is Roger Bate of the International Policy Network - a group whose Washington address is the same as that of the CEI.

Kendra Okonski of IPN also used to work for CEI. When ABC-TV's 20/20 program presenter John Stossel came under fire in August 2000 for citing nonexistent scientific studies in a 20/20 report attacking organic foods, Okonski organised a Save John Stossel website for the CEI to help Stossel keep his job.

Another CEI 'Adjunct' is Ronald Bailey, the science editor of Reason magazine and the first recipient of CEI's Warren T. Brookes Fellowship in Environmental Journalism.

In March 2001, CEI joined the American Council on Science and Health, Steve Milloy, Dennis Avery, and Consumer Alert in an open letter criticizing Starbucks for its decision, in response to protests, to stop serving milk products from cows treated with Monsanto's genetically-engineered bovine growth hormone (rBGH aka BST), which is banned in all the main industrialised countries in the world other than the United States. 'Your action is unfounded, and harms consumers and the environment', they stated. The CEI's Kendra Okonski , wearing her 'counter protest' hat, organised a counter-demonstration outside Starbucks in Washington.

In March 2002 CEI, exploiting the concerns raised by September 11, co-sponsored a conference for journalists and corporate executives on 'eco-extremism' with CDFE-connnected PR firm Nichols Dezenhall. (You too might be a terrorist. The war on the greens)


3. Greg Conko - GM WATCH profile


Greg Conko is the Director of Food Safety Policy at the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI) where he he 'specialises in issues of food and pharmaceutical drug safety regulation, and on the general treatment of health risks in public policy'. He is described as 'particularly interested in the debate over the safety of genetically engineered foods and the application of the Precautionary Principle to domestic and international environmental and safety regulations'.

Although Conko's leading role in C S Prakash's AgBioWorld campaign has only lately been acknowledged by AgBioWorld, the CEI has been more open, describing him as ' the Vice President and a member of the Board of Directors of the AgBioWorld Foundation, [which] he co-founded with Tuskegee University plant genetics professor C.S. Prakash'.

Given Conko's leading role in AgBioWorld, it would be interesting to know his exact relationship with Monsanto's PR team, particularly Jay Byrne - Monsanto's chief Internet strategist at the time AgBioWorld was established. Byrne has ackowledged giving AgBioWorld 'advice and information' and both Monsanto and its Internet PR company Bivings have played a covert role in shaping and supporting AgBioWorld's online campaigning.

Conko's many publications include papers, promoting GM foods and free trade and attacking the precautionary principle, co-authored with CS Prakash, Henry Miller, Fred Smith and Kendra Okonski. Amongst these is 'Cloudy horizons in a brave new world', originally published on the European Science and Economic Forum website. In it Conko suggests that concerns about the safety of GM food are merely a cover for 'trade protectionism' and 'anti-science fearmongering'.

In March 2003 Conko took part in a debate on 'GM food: should labelling be mandatory?' held at the London office of PR agency Hill and Knowlton and organised by Spiked and the International Policy Network. Conko argued against any requirement to label GM foods. In May 2003, Conko was at the press conference at which the US Trade Secretary formally announced a US WTO case against EU restrictions on GM imports. This was followed by a CEI seminar on the negative impact of the EU moratorium on the developing world, addressed by Conko, Norman Borlaug, C. S. Prakash, and T.J. Buthelezi.


4. National Center for Food and Agriculture Policy (NCFAP) - GM WATCH profile


The National Center for Food and Agricultural Policy (NCFAP) describes itself as 'a private non-profit non-advocacy research organization'. However, an article in the science journal Nature describes NCFAP as 'a pro-GM industry group' and, looking at the invariably industry-supporting claims emerging out of NCFAP stiudies, it may seem difficult to be certain where reseach ends and advocacy begins.

NCFAP conducts studies in four areas: biotechnology, pesticides, international trade and development, and farm and food policy.

NCFAP's Program Director and Senior Research Associate is Leonard Gianessi. Curiously, Gianessi's only academic qualification appears to be a Bachelor of Arts degree in Public Affairs from George Washington University.

Prior to joining NCFAP in October 1993, Mr Gianessi spent seventeen years as a researcher at Resources For the Future (RFF), a Washington-based 'conservation' research organisation with funding from major US corporations. Sponsors include Dupont and Union Carbide as well as a number of oil companies. RFF's Director of Risk, Resource, and Environmental Management is Michael R. Taylor, Monsanto's former vice-president for public policy who was at the centre of a major controversy over conflicts of interest in relation to Monsanto's genetically engineered cattle drug rBGH (Revolving doors: Monsanto and the regulators). Resources For the Future turned their attention to agriculture in 1984 with funding from the Kellogg Foundation.

NCFAP was spun out of RFF as an independent organization in 1992 and Gianessi moved with it. Gianessi's focus was particularly on pesticide use though not exclusively so. In 1999 he was cited as 'a water quality scientist and the developer of the water quality modeling method used to measure feedlot and confinement livestock waste' when he took the Environmental Protection Agency to task for what he called 'a bad case of shoddy data' in their concern over the impact of livestock waste. (The problem with pigs, August 1999)

Mostly though, Gianessi has been involved in defending pesticides - speaking on The Value of Pesticides in US Crop Production, expressing concern about the loss of organophosphate and carbamate insecticides on minor crops, and touting the benefits of herbicide use. CropLife America (CLA), a trade organization representing agro-chemical manufacturers, is among those that have commissioned studies which have inspired often evangelical farm press coverage: 'thank God for the chemicals that beat back the ever threatening, yield-sapping tide of weeds. Because of such chemicals there's food available to feed the world... according to the data compiled in the [NCFAP] report, there's no going back to the good, old, pre-chemical days.'

Gianessi has shown a talent for producing eye-catching figures, arguing for instance that herbicide-free agriculture would require 'up to 7 million workers to hand remove weeds' while still causing the loss of '300 billion pounds of food and fiber'. Organic agriculture on anything but the smallest scale is a non-starter. Herbicides, Gianessi says, are absolutely essential for maintenance of high yields and, 'If we truly wanted to maintain current yields and do away with herbicides, 70 million additional hoe-toting farmhands would be patrolling fields. That would mean one of every four U.S. citizens chopping weeds for a month every year. There just isn't a future for a vast expansion of organic agriculture,' says Gianessi. (NCFAP study touts herbicide benefits)

NCFAP began to focus on GM crops in 2000. Its main biotechnology research programme was launched in the spring of 2001 with financial support from the Rockefeller Foundation, the Biotechnology Industry Organisation, Monsanto, the biotech-industry funded Council for Biotechnology Information (CBI), the Grocery Manufacturers of America, and CropLife America.

According to NCFAP, 'researchers began an ambitious project to estimate the realized and potential impacts of 40 separate case studies of biotech crops.' NCFAP's findings were as usual eye-catching. According to the report, during the 2001 crop year, eight GM crops in production had increased crop yields by 1.8 billion kg (4 billion lb), saved growers US$1.2 billion by cutting production costs, and reduced pesticide use by 21 mil. kg (46 mil. lb).

The NCFAP report did not stop there but looked to the future, considering the potential of 27 GM crops in the U.S., some of which were still being developed, to increase annual production, improve farm income, and reduce pesticide use. (PLANT BIOTECHNOLOGY: CURRENT POTENTIAL IMPACT FOR IMPROVING PEST MANAGEMENT IN U.S. AGRICULTURE, AN ANALYSIS OF 40 CASE STUDIES, NCFAP, June 200)

The report drew enthusiastic press coverage. One article, National Study Finds Biotech Does It All, told its readers the report showed GM crops meant farmers could 'sharply increase crop production', 'significantly reduce' pesticide use and 'generate truckloads of additional cash' - 'It's a win-win-win combination that reads like a proponent's wildest hope, but is, in reality, the prediction of an expert group based on extensive results from 40 studies of 27 biotech crops all across the U.S.A.' The article described NCFAP's summary report as 'eye-popping', its predictions for the future as 'visionary' and the predicted pesticide reductions (70 mil. lb plus) as 'whopping'. (emphasis added)

Gianessi followed up his 'eye-popping' report with a U.S. speaking tour. The Associated Press reported, 'Leonard Gianessi... has been barnstorming across the country promoting the benefits of geneticallymodified crops.' (Biotech-advocate Leonard Gianessi meets with Opposition in Sacramento)

Gianessi's findings, however, have been notably at odds with those of the independent agronomist Dr Charles Benbrook, who in a series of studies has shown significant yield losses with GM soya - the main GM crop grown in the U.S.. Benbrook's own calculations suggest farmers are barely breaking even financially, although they are attracted by the ease of the weed management. (Fields of gold? - Biotech's cash benefits may not be what they seem, New Scientist, June 22 2002)

As regard NCFAP's claim of decreased usage of pesticide, a 2003 technical paper by Dr Benbrook analysed all the publicly available US Department of Agriculture (USDA) data on pesticide use in the US since 1996 when GM crops were first introduced. Like the NCFAP report it looked at pounds of pesticides applied and found that, while they initially led to a reduction in pesticide use, in the period 2001-2003 GM crops increased use of over all pesticides by over 73 million pounds. This directly contradicts the NCFAP estimate for 2001, as well as undermining its 'visionary' predictions of 'whopping' pesticide decreases in the future.

As a former Executive Director of the Board on Agriculture of the U.S. National Academy for seven-years, Benbrook represents an authoritative voice on agricultural science and some see the funding of NCFAP's biotechnology research as driven by a need to to contradict the findings emerging out of Benbrook's research as well as to provide the industry with positive data.

In fact,one of Gianessi's first interventions in the biotech arena came in October 31, 2000, when he circulated via the Internet a critique of Benbrook's review of the benefits assessments on genetically engineered Bt crops developed by the EPA as part of the reregistration of Bt crops. Benbrook in responding to some of the major points raised in Gianessi's critique considered some of the criticisms both 'disingenuous and unfounded'.

NCFAP's eye-popping statistics have not only been brought into question by Benbrook. In the same month that the NCFAP report was published, the Economic Research Service (ERS) of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) released its own extensive analysis of the economic performance of GM crops in America. This revealed a completely different picture. The USDA report went so far as to conclude, 'Perhaps the biggest issue raised by these results is how to explain the rapid adoption of GE crops when farm financial impacts appear to be mixed or even negative.' (more on the USDA report)

There has been no shortage of funding for NCFAP's biotechnology studies. In 2002 NCFAP's funders once again included the Biotechnology Industry Organization, the Council for Biotechnology Information, CropLife America, the Grocery Manufacturers of America and Monsanto, as well as Aventis, Bayer, DuPont, and Syngenta.

And Gianessi and his team have also been funded to look beyond the U.S.. NCFAP received funds from Monsanto, Syngenta, EuropaBio and the Biotechnology Industry Organisation to estimate the potential impacts of GM crops on European agriculture. According to the UK-based biotech-industry lobby group ABC , 'NCFAP's proven methodology and strong ties to European researchers made it an ideal organization to conduct the first comprehensive study of how biotechnology could impact European agriculture.'

Despite the fact that only Spain has any commercial GM crop acreage, and there appears to be no market for GM foods amongst European consumers, NCFAP's study reported that the 'widespread adoption of plant biotechnology in maize, oilseed rape, wheat, rice, tomatoes, potatoes, sugarbeets and stone fruit in Europe would result in significant yield increases, savings for growers and pesticide use reductions. All together, the nine biotech crops would increase yields by 8.5 billion kilograms per year, increase grower net income by 1.6 billionEuro per year and reduce pesticide use by 14.4 million kilograms per year, compared with existing practices that would be replaced.' The 'same methodology that NCFAP researchers used in its U.S. work' is apparently employed in the European study. (Plant Biotechnology: Potential Impact for Improving Pest Management in European Agriculture)

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