By Carey Gillam
(Reuters) - U.S. taxpayers are footing the bill for overseas lobbying that promotes controversial biotech crops developed by U.S.-based Monsanto Co and other seed makers, a report issued on Tuesday said.
A review of 926 diplomatic cables of correspondence to and from the U.S. State Department and embassies in more than 100 countries found that State Department officials actively promoted the commercialization of specific biotech seeds, according to the report issued by Food & Water Watch, a nonprofit consumer protection group.
The officials tried to quash public criticism of particular companies and facilitated negotiations between foreign governments and seed companies such as Monsanto over issues like patents and intellectual property, the report said.
The cables show U.S. diplomats supporting Monsanto, the world's largest seed company, in foreign countries even after it paid $1.5 million in fines after being charged with bribing an Indonesian official and violating the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act in 2005.
One 2009 cable shows the embassy in Spain seeking "high-level U.S. government intervention" at the "urgent request" of Monsanto to combat biotech crop opponents there, according to the Food & Water Watch report.
The report covered cables from 2005-2009 that were released by Wikileaks in 2010 as part of a much larger release by Wikileaks of a range of diplomatic cables it obtained.
Monsanto spokesman Tom Helscher said Monsanto believes it is critical to maintain an open dialogue with government authorities and trade groups in other countries.
"We remain committed to sharing information so that individuals can better understand our business and our commitments to support farmers throughout the world as they work to meet the agriculture demands of our world's growing population," he said.
State Department officials had no immediate comment when contacted about the report.
Food & Water Watch said the cables it examined provide a detailed account of how far the State Department goes to support and promote the interests of the agricultural biotech industry, which has had a hard time gaining acceptance in many foreign markets.
"It really goes beyond promoting the U.S.'s biotech industry and agriculture," said Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food & Water Watch. "It really gets down to twisting the arms of countries and working to undermine local democratic movements that may be opposed to biotech crops, and pressuring foreign governments to also reduce the oversight of biotech crops."
But U.S. officials, Monsanto and many other companies and industry experts routinely say that biotech crops are needed around the world to increase global food production as population expands. They maintain that the crops are safe and make farming easier and more environmentally sustainable.
PROMOTION THROUGH PAMPHLETS, DVDs?
The cables show that State Department officials directed embassies to "troubleshoot problematic legislation" that might hinder biotech crop development and to "encourage the development and commercialization of ag-biotech products".
The State Department also produced pamphlets in Slovenia promoting biotech crops, sent pro-biotech DVDs to high schools in Hong Kong and helped bring foreign officials and media from 17 countries to the United States to promote biotech agriculture, Food & Water Watch said.
Genetically altered crops are widely used in the United States. Crops spliced with DNA from other species are designed to resist pests and tolerate chemical applications, and since their introduction in the mid 1990s have come to dominate millions of acres of U.S. farmland.
The biotech crops are controversial with some groups and in many countries because some studies have shown harmful health impacts for humans and animals, and the crops have been associated with some environmental problems.
They also generally are more expensive than conventional crops, and the biotech seed developers patent the high-tech seeds so farmers using them have to buy new seed every season, a factor that makes them unappealing in some developing nations.
Many countries ban planting of biotech crops or have strict labeling requirements.
"It's appalling that the State Department is complicit in supporting their (the biotech seed industry's) goals despite public and government opposition in several countries," said Ronnie Cummins, executive director of nonprofit organization Organic Consumers Association.
"American taxpayer's money should not be spent advancing the goals of a few giant biotech companies."
(Editing by Muralikumar Anantharaman)