2 area winners from ag meeting

AgraQuest and UC Davis draw inquiries on several fronts from foreign nations

By Mike Lee -- Bee Staff Writer

Published Tuesday, July 22, 2003

The University of California, Davis, and a Davis biotech company are among the biggest winners from last month's international agriculture conference.

The expo, which put a global spotlight on the region's agricultural technology, has spawned only one commercial deal so far. But several participants are nurturing what could become long-term international partnerships.

The final tally released last week by the U.S. Department of Agriculture shows that 119 agency ministers from 117 countries visited Sacramento June 23 to 25.

The event was smaller than USDA officials hoped for, but they already are considering hosting similar conferences in Africa and Latin America in response to those regions' interest in agricultural technology.

Even if those plans don't pan out, UC Davis figures to gain new partners in its mission to boost Third World food production.

Top officials from more than a half-dozen countries visited the campus on their own time after the conference. In two cases, representatives came to Davis to advance specific research and assistance efforts.

"Quite a few of them are going to be keeping in touch with our scientists to borrow ideas to take back to their countries," said UC Davis spokeswoman Lisa Lapin.

Patrick Brown, director of international programs for the agriculture college at Davis, said officials from the United Arab Emirates stayed for several days after the conference. In an early July ceremony, they celebrated with UC Davis the start of research on salt-tolerant date palms for the Middle Eastern country.

Also, a delegation from Afghanistan visited Davis to discuss the university's ongoing efforts to rebuild agriculture in the war-torn country.

"As a result of that, when I send them e-mail they respond, whereas previously they would put it in the delete file," Brown said.

At AgraQuest, a small Davis company that specializes in environmentally friendly pest management products, CEO Pamela Marrone remains thrilled with the exposure she received when about 45 visitors toured her company.

"Most of them were really good contacts for us for future business," she said, adding that she intends to contact several delegates who showed interest.

"They been exposed to a lot of the genetic engineering stuff, and they had not heard how they could in their own countries harvest the biodiversity that is there and make products like we're making," she said.

Marrone said she'd welcome such a gathering anytime -- "and get more countries," she said, noting the absence of European officials who stayed home to shape controversial farm policies.

To date, only one contract generated by the conference has been made public. Illinois-based Water$avr announced a partnership with Namibia at the close of the conference to reduce evaporation from a reservoir in that country.

"We have clear evidence now that a number of countries and private companies have started discussions of cooperation," said Christian Foster, assistant deputy administrator of the USDA's Foreign Agricultural Service and the chief conference organizer.

He declined to disclose details about a handful of deals that he said were in the works, citing a desire to protect the privacy of the parties involved.

Monsanto, the world leader in genetically engineered seed technology, said the conference sparked lots of interest in the company's pest-resistant cotton, which was prominently displayed at the conference's technology exposition.

"This particular event, I think, was very fruitful in that longer-term global process ... (of) dialogue about biotechnology," said Jill Montgomery, director of technology cooperation for Monsanto in St. Louis.

In addition to the international agency leaders, the event drew 256 deputies and assistants from abroad, Foster said.

The international delegation was smaller than the contingent of U.S. agency personnel, media, speakers and business exhibitors. Foster put total attendance at 925, less than the 1,000 initially anticipated.

Perhaps that was why Nick Thomas, an agriculture specialist at ESRI, a Redlands-based mapping software company, thought foot traffic was a little light past his company's expo booth.

Still, Thomas left with a handful of new contacts. "We are not quite sure how to follow up," he said. "We have to work on that."

Foster expects the conference cost to end up close to the initial estimate of $3 million. Besides typical expenses, the U.S. government paid to bring about 35 delegations from developing countries at a cost that Foster said remains unsettled.

He also said that until he sorts out the bills he won't know how much of the security costs incurred by other agencies -- about $2.3 million, according to an earlier estimate -- would be defrayed by the federal government.

City officials are preparing a detailed report on security costs as part of larger informal effort to determine whether the conference was a net gain or loss for the region.

Meanwhile, federal officials from at least three agencies continue assessing what went right and wrong in Sacramento. Tops on the do-better list is getting an earlier start.

"Lead time for an event of this size was less than one would hope for," said Foster.

Planning started almost one year before the conference, but organizers still found themselves scrambling to get hotel rooms, tour buses and travel visas for international delegates.

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