The US flax industry lets the biotech Agragen Inc. have both barrels over GM pharma flax. This, of course, is the kind of insane prospect the New Zealand government seems so keen to attract!

VIEWPOINT: Agragen sows a crop of false assertions
By Ernie Hoffert
Grand Forks Herald, 26 June 2005

In response Agragen Inc. executives Sam Huttenbauer Jr., Sam Huttenbauer III and Eric Murphy, I would say most of it does not need to be dignified by my rebuttal.

However, some of their assertions are total fabrications or distortions.

The meeting that Ameriflax organized June 9 in Fargo was not a closed meeting. One of the authors contacted me about this issue, and I told him that Ameriflax was bound by the North Dakota open meeting law (in that it is funded by grower check-off funds) and that the meeting was open but that he was not welcome and Ann Bailey from Agweek magazine would be there to report on the discussion.

Agragen states that this is just an edible flax industry concern. Wrong: This is an entire industry concern. In 2004, flax growers produced about 15 million bushels from 600,000 acres that generated nearly $150 million for our producers. The food industry as well as the feed industry is at risk with Agragen's concept.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service has a zero tolerance for commingling of plant-made pharmaceuticals in the food and feed supply, so even the linseed meal that remains after the linseed oil is extracted is subject to these regulations.

We also have our export market to Europe to consider. I was surprised when one of the major commercial flax buyers told us that 15 percent of our flax is exported to Europe - and, contrary to Murphy's assertion that Europe is softening its stance regarding biotech, it is not.

Agragen also claims that this opposition is being promoted by a "small but profitable sector." This, too, is false. Ameriflax has hosted two meetings on this subject, with the first in September 2004, where Agragen was given the whole day to sell this concept. Virtually all of the flax industry leaders - from the big industrial users to organic interests to North Dakota State University scientists - were there, including both major flax organizations from Canada.

And yet between the two meetings, not one - I repeat, not one - word of support for Agragen or their concept was voiced. In fact, the comments ranged from being very concerned to outright opposition. I think this is a little more than a "small, but profitable sector."

Again, the entire industry is at risk and not just in North Dakota. Just this week, a news story from Winnipeg voiced serious concerns from the Canadian Flax Council about the very real threat of their flax being contaminated by plant-made pharmaceutical flax from this side of the border.

Opposition to these pharmaceuticals is not limited to flax, but to all food and feed commodities in this country, including many of the major processing groups such as the Grocers Manufacturers Association and the North American Millers Association.

The entire plant-made pharmaceuticals concept has been a big disappointment to the biotech industry. Since 1991, there have been more than 200 open-air trials involving corn, beans and other crops - and to date, not one has passed the stringent guidelines of the Food and Drug Administration.

But Agragen officials would have you believe that this is no problem - even though their only other experience with plant-made pharmacueticals tried to use tobacco in Kentucky, but for whatever reason did not succeed.

They also would like you to believe that they have all the answers regarding accidental comingling, be it by pollen drift, seed mixture or other means. But they fail to talk about disasters such as Prodigene in Nebraska in 2002, when failure to monitor a plant-made pharmacueticals test plot from a previous year's trial led to contamination of 500,000 bushels of soybeans at a local elevator and a $3.5 million liability problem for Prodigene.

I wonder how much liability insurance Agragen will have to cover such disasters? Or will this liability fall back on the farmers involved - or will it be state, local or federal entities who may help fund this concept? Or will it be the angel investors or venture capital groups they hope to attract?

"Genetically engineered foods are among the riskiest of all possible insurance exposures that we have today," according to Robert Hartwig, chief economist for the Insurance Information Institute.

What about lost markets to foreign or domestic buyers such as in the Starlink fiasco? Even biotech leader Monsanto has abandoned its subsidiary, Integrated Protein Technologies, due to "uncertainity of the longer-term reward from a highly capital-intensive business," Hartwig said.

And farmers don't buy into the idea that this concept will save many farms in North Dakota. In a recent Farm Industry News issue, Senior Editor Wayne Wenzel tells farmers to forget "pharming."

Another thing Agragen failed to mention in its letter has to do with the Ventria rice debacle. Originally, the company introduced a plant-made pharmaceutical rice concept in California, but the rice growers mounted such opposition that they were forced to look elsewhere to try their experiment.

As a friend of mine in Missouri said recently in an e-mail regarding the Ventria rice situation: "We are faced with a situation where we have 200 acres and one grower and a promise, versus 250,000 acres, 600 growers and an existing industry worth $100 million ... tough trade off !"

This is the exact same scenario we are facing in North Dakota. From everyone's viewpoint in the flax industry, this is a no-brainer; forget about it. Try a different nonfood or feed crop, and the opposition will disappear.

No one can stop a company such as Agragen from proceeding as long as they follow USDA regulations. Our goal is to prevent tax dollars, state or federal, from helping fund plant-made pharmaceuticals in projects involving flax.

Agragen is free to spend all the money it wants as long as it is Agragen's own nickel, but I doubt Agragen will continue doing that.

Agragen says it will be holding focus group meetings to inform producers about their plans. The reason for this is that it desperately needs farmer support to attract federal and state tax dollars. So, as long as it is not tarred and feathered at these meetings, Agragen will interpret them as a sign of support.

The first rule in economic development is to do no harm to existing businesses and industries. Our concern is that harm will happen eventually, despite all the safeguards that are proposed. Human error will lead to a breakdown in the system, and then it will be too late.

The flax acres in North Dakota have grown from a low of 100,000 acres in the late 1980s to maybe as high as 1 million acres in 2005. Flax is an old crop with exciting new uses. It is probably the fastest-growing grain commodity in the health-food sector as well as in the feed market for horses, chickens, dairy and beef cattle. We cannot let these rapidly expanding markets be jeopardized by high risk concepts such as plant-made pharmaceuticals.

Agragen calls itself "a potential $200 million industry," referring to its projected sales. The key word is, "projected." Everything has potential, but I prefer to go with what is "actual - such as our existing markets, which, this year with a good crop, could be $200 million or more. This is "actual," not potential.

I worked with Agragen for more than a year, thinking perhaps there was such thing as coexistence, But the more I learned, the more I realized this was not possible.

One of the most damaging factors to Agragen's credibility was the decision by NDSU's biotech department to not aid the company in its venture. This speaks volumes.

Hoffert is secretary and treasurer of Ameriflax