Anheuser-Busch Trapped In Social-Issue Snare by Steven J. Milloy

Corporate managers might want to think twice about publicly engaging in environmental and social controversies. Budweiser brewer Anheuser-Busch's managers are the latest to learn this lesson the hard way.AB's self-inflicted problem began innocently enough when Ventria Bioscience, a biopharmaceutical company, requested approval from the Department of Agriculture to plant about 200 acres of biotech rice this spring. The rice is engineered with human genes to produce proteins for use in medicines.The Missouri Farm Bureau, universities, and numerous biotech researchers supported Ventria's request. The ensuing USDA environmental assessment concluded the proposed biotech planting didn't pose a threat of contamination to nearby conventional rice crops.But here's where things went awry.<?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags” />Missouri rice growers asked the USDA to deny Ventria's request. Anheuser-Busch, which buys Missouri rice to brew Budweiser, joined the growers against Ventria.But why would Missouri's rice industry, which produces about 30 million bushels of rice worth $95 million annually, be threatened by Ventria's measly 200 acres of biotech rice meant for medical research – especially since, according to experts, there's no risk of the biotech rice disseminating and mixing with conventional crops?Enter the activists. Anti-technology environmental groups, like Greenpeace, have long been working to terrify the public about agricultural biotechnology, labeling foods made with biotech crops as “Frankenfoods.”Although science shows, and regulatory agencies agree, that human health and the environment aren't at risk from biotech crops, the Green biotech scare has had some success.Most notoriously, Greenpeace coerced Novartis AG in 1999 to forswear biotech crops in its Gerber baby foods by faxing a letter – addressed simply, “To the CEO,” because Greenpeace didn't know name of Novartis's CEO – asking, “Does Gerber use genetically engineered products in its baby food? If so, which products? What steps have you taken, if any, to ensure that you are not using [biotech crops]?”Then last year, Monsanto announced it was shelving plans to develop biotech wheat because there was no market for the seeds – a condition created by Monsanto's inability to defend against Greenpeace's relentless activism.Missouri's rice farmers are understandably concerned their markets might also evaporate if the Ventria application is approved – a concern not based in science, but rather on a “fear of fear.”About 75% of Missouri's rice crop is exported and no country currently accepts biotech rice. It's not that Missouri rice might, in fact, be “contaminated” with biotech rice, but if activists make the allegation, importers might ban the rice until the matter is resolved.A similar scare in 2000 involving taco shells alleged to contain traces of a type of biotech corn not yet approved for human consumption forced Kraft Foods into a product recall.No doubt Anheuser-Busch rightly became interested in the biotech rice controversy wanting to avoid repeating Kraft's taco-shell nightmare with flagship brand Budweiser. But then AB erred, publicly announcing in early April that if Ventria's request were approved, it would not buy any rice grown or processed in Missouri.Though a compromise with Ventria was soon reached, requiring that the biotech rice be grown at least 120 miles away from the rice-growing region of southeast Missouri, and AB withdrew its threatened boycott, the controversy is far from over.The incident didn't escape the notice of anti-technology activists who, always scanning the environment looking for vulnerable corporate managements, started mobilizing to pressure AB about biotech rice further afield.The Chinese government may soon approve biotech rice. Anti-technology activists, led by Greenpeace, are apoplectic over the commercialization of a biotech version of the world's largest food staple.The activists plan to pressure AB to, in turn, pressure the Chinese government not to approve biotech rice. AB, after all, brews Budweiser in China and owns 27% of the Chinese beer Tsingtao. AB, says one activist, “is capable of making a very effective stand against [biotech] rice in China.AB managers' job is to sell beer, not to pressure foreign governments on behalf of American activists. Its managers should have worked quietly to resolve its concerns with Ventria, rather than placing the company in the precarious position of either being labeled hypocritical or having to take an uneasy stand against the Chinese government and an unconscionable stand against biotechnology.<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office” />