Water -- more than biotechnology -- was on the minds of many delegates

By Edie Lau and Mike Lee -- Bee Staff Writers

Published Thursday, June 26, 2003

For all the attention on biotechnology at this week's international agriculture conference in Sacramento, what many delegates really wanted to talk about was something far more fundamental to farming: water.

An official from Zambia was excited to learn about drip irrigation, a technique of applying water directly to plant roots, avoiding waste.

An official from Afghanistan paid special attention to ideas for storing water during dry years.

An official from Bahrain wished to hear something about recycling wastewater for irrigation. But the subject did not come up at the U.S.-sponsored Ministerial Conference and Expo on Agricultural Science and Technology, which ended Wednesday.

"Within three days, we can't cover all things," Jaffar Habib Ahmed, Bahrain's director of plant wealth, said forgivingly.

The thirst for water-saving and water-storing technologies was not lost on U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Ann Veneman. At a news briefing Wednesday to sum up the conference, which attracted dignitaries from about 115 nations, Veneman identified water as one of four themes that emerged. Specifically, she identified a need to:

* Find solutions to water shortages.

* Apply existing research in poor areas.

* Revitalize research in staple crops of developing countries.

* Spur governments, universities and businesses to collaborate more closely.

Veneman did not cite a follow-up agenda, but she emphasized her interest in seeing regional meetings address the technologies needed in given areas of the world.

"So many of these people will go back with a renewed sense of what is possible," Veneman said.

Dignitaries from Namibia will take back something more: a deal struck with Illinois-based Water$avr Global Solutions to try to retard water loss from a reservoir in the southern African country wracked by water shortages. The company sells a product that spreads a thin film across water surfaces, reducing evaporation by 20 percent to 40 percent.

Water$avr did not disclose the terms of the deal, which was worked out at the conference trade show. Company president Patrick Grant called it an important strategic move.

"We are very focused in getting a foothold in this part of the world," he said, noting that the conference gave him access to top officials in at least six countries. "We actually exceeded our expectations."

On Wednesday, the delegates boarded buses for field trips around the region. Conference organizers refused to name the destinations, citing a need for security. Hundreds -- at times thousands -- of protesters against food biotechnology, also known as genetic engineering, dogged the conference throughout its duration.

But the University of California, Davis, which hosted tours of three of the facilities visited Wednesday by dignitaries, invited media to join in.

The university's involvement with the field trips highlights its stature in the world of agriculture. UC Davis spends more money on agricultural research than any other university in the nation, and its faculty published more articles on agriculture and the environment than those from any other federally funded U.S. university between 1998-2002, according to the National Science Foundation and a journal-tracking company, ISI Essential Science Indicators.

Among the school's many farm-related feats are developing genetically engineered rice to resist major bacterial diseases, extending the shelf life of harvested crops and researching wine grape varieties that made possible California's signature farm industry.

To the foreign ministers, UC Davis showed three programs. One was Foundation Plant Services, a laboratory that quarantines and checks for disease in imported grapevines, nut and fruit trees, roses and sweet potatoes.

The second was the California Animal Health and Food Safety Laboratory, which diagnoses illnesses in farm animals.

The third was the Department of Food Science and Technology, where, among other things, researchers and students design new foods and food packaging materials, try to understand how harmful micro-organisms attack food, and delve into the interplay between nutrients and body chemistry.

Persistent to the end, about 80 activists marched peacefully around campus, bearing signs expressing their opposition to genetically modified foods. Some were dressed in corn and tomato costumes.

Later, the group drove to a Monsanto research facility in Davis, where the world's first genetically modified food -- the Flavr Savr tomato -- was created. The activists poured onto the sidewalk kernels of what they said were genetically modified corn, a symbolic rejection of engineered food.

About 30 police officers and California Highway Patrol officers shadowed the group on campus. Another 30 police officers stood in a phalanx in front of Monsanto. Authorities said no one was arrested in either case.

About the Writer The Bee's Edie Lau can be reached at (916) 321-1098 or elau@sacbee.com. Staff writer Pamela Martineau contributed to this report.