Rice panel urged to get new lawyer - conflict alleged

The attorney works for a firm that has big biotech clients.

By Mike Lee -- Bee Staff Writer

Published Wednesday, May 12, 2004

Three consumer and environmental groups on Tuesday asked a rice industry panel to get a new lawyer when it takes up the question of pharmaceutical rice plants.

The organizations, which are opposed to growing drug compounds in food crops, said the commission's Sacramento lawyer may not be able to provide unbiased advice because his firm's clients include big biotech companies Syngenta and Dow AgroSciences.

George H. Soares, managing partner of Kahn, Soares & Conway LLP, advised the 12-member rice panel this winter when it gave "emergency" approval to a detailed plan from Ventria Bioscience for commercial plantings of rice engineered to grow common human proteins.

Panel members are appointed by the state agriculture secretary from nominations by a trade group, the California Rice Commission. It administers a 2000 state law designed to keep rice varieties separate.

In April, the state sent the Ventria plan back to the rice industry panel with a few additional questions. The panel is expected to provide more information on behalf of the Sacramento biotech company, which would like to increase production of its novel crop.

Other biotech companies, including Syngenta, have tested different genetically engineered rice varieties in California, one of the nation's leading rice-producing states.

"We question Mr. Soares' objectivity ... on this precedent-setting pharmaceutical rice proposal, given his law firm's financial ties to other biotech companies who may have a stake in this matter," said Peter Jenkins, an attorney at the Washington, D.C.-based watchdog group Center for Food Safety.

Consumers Union and Environment California also signed the letter to the panel and the rice commission.

Soares, a veteran California lawyer, defended his work but declined to discuss specific complaints raised in the letter. "I don't want to engage in the discussion because the accusations ... are meritless," he said.

Tim Johnson, California Rice Commission president, was in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday and could not immediately be reached for comment.

About the Writer The Bee's Mike Lee can be reached at (916) 321-1102 or mflee@sacbee.com.