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As Maine debates GMO food labels, Pingree's connections to Big Agriculture surface

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GMO Protesters

AUGUSTA – As demonstrators gathered at the State House Tuesday to support a Farmington Republican’s push for better labeling of foods that contain genetically modified organisms (GMOs), new information has come to light regarding U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree’s financial and political ties to top GMO firms.

In advance of the Agriculture Committee’s public hearing for Rep. Lance Harvell’s (R-Farmington) bill to regulate food containing GMOs, crowds gathered shouting “No, No, G-M-O!” and brandishing signs and slogans – even some that appeared on the backs of old Pingree for Senate signs.

GMO - Pingree Sign

Irony: GMO protester recycles a sign from U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree’s failed 2002 Senate campaign.

That Pingree’s old political materials are being recycled to protest GMOs in Maine is not surprising – as a candidate and as a Congresswoman she has been a vocal opponent of GMOs.

What is surprising, however, is that her husband S. Donald Sussman sold a substantial stake – valued upwards of $1 million – in top GMO-related companies in 2011.

Analysis of Pingree’s 2011 House of Representatives Financial Disclosure shows the sale of more than $1 million in stocks of Rehovo, Israel-based Evogene Ltd., an agriculture biotech company in which Monsanto Company owns a controlling interest and enjoys rights to certain proprietary information.

According to Pingree’s disclosure, Sussman and the Congresswoman reaped their stock sale windfall at the peak market price relative to the stocks 6-month performance—just weeks after the Israel-U.S. Binational Industrial Research and Development (BIRD) Foundation gave approval to a government-funded partnership between Evogene and DuPont’s Pioneer Hi-Bred.

According to an Evogene press release dated Nov, 21, 2011,Pioneer and Evogene have received an approval in principle for partial funding of the project from the BIRD Foundation, a bi-national foundation funded by the Israeli and American governments…”

On November 29, 2011, Evogene announced another American partnership, the renewal of a deal with Monsanto in providing their Gene2Product technologies to Monsanto:

“As part of the extension, Evogene will add its Gene2ProductTM computational technologies to its gene discovery program, offering an additional approach for enhancing trait efficacy and the development of candidate genes identified under the collaboration.”

“Monsanto receives exclusive license rights to such candidate genes delivered by Evogene for use in corn, soybean, canola, and cotton.”

“Successful candidate genes that emerge from the collaboration will be commercialized by Monsanto through its branded seed and trait licensing businesses, with Evogene entitled to receive both development milestone payments and royalties.”

A look at Evogene’s stock price (EVGN: Tel Aviv) shows the stock climbed from 1435 on Nov. 21, 2011 to 1625 on Dec. 15, 2011, a nearly 15% increase over less than a month and at its highest point from mid-July 2011 thru March 2012 . On Dec. 14,  the day before the trade is reported on Pingree’s financial statement, Evogene’s volume hit a yearly high of more than 600,000—almost ten times the volume it traded the day before or the day after. This is an unusual volume spike which could warrant an investigation into Sussman’s other fund activities on this stock.

Pingree’s disclosure becomes even more troubling when news reports from early in 2011 show she actively sought a seat on the House Agriculture committee, a committee of oversight for the same agriculture interests now appearing on her financial disclosure, according to Maine Public Broadcasting.

“Maine Congresswoman Chellie Pingree says she’ll serve a second term on the House Armed Services Committee during the new session. Pingree has also been assigned to serve on the House Agriculture Committee.

The 1st District Democrat says she requested both assignments.”

That Pingree sits on the House Agriculture Committee means she is responsible for oversight of most GMO regulatory areas, including, among others, the following sectors where she had an investment in the Dupont/Monsanto/Evogene partnerships: Adulteration of seeds; agricultural economics and research;  agricultural and industrial chemistry;  entomology;  plant industry, soils, and agricultural engineering.

Pingree purposefully sought a seat on a House Committee while holding assets that were in a position to rapidly grow in value based on U.S. government support – placing her in a position of influence over the support and policy that would maximize her own returns.

Known to her constituents as a champion of small organic farms, Pingree regularly criticizes “big agriculture” and “genetically engineered” crops in her press releases and political statements, but Evogene proudly touts partnerships with some of the biggest agriculture corporations in the world. Working on plant genetics research, genetic engineering and technology, Evogene’s work stands abreast of the very players Pingree frequently claims she will stand up to, and that as a member of the House Agriculture Committee, she likely has access to privileged information about.

For instance, in this undated post on Pingree’s 2012 Re-election Campaign website, Pingree says:

“Now, thirty years later, big corporations have changed the face of farming in America and companies like Monsanto are trying to push through the use of genetically engineered (GE) seeds to grow alfalfa, sugar beets, soybeans and other important crops.  My history as an organic farmer and the challenges we face in growing sustainable, healthy food are the main reasons I have begun work on the House Agriculture Committee. We face some significant decisions in the weeks, months and years ahead and I intend to bring my perspective to the work that Congress will do.”

Pingree’s own financial disclosure reports show that in the same election cycle, and possibly within days of her posting this statement on her campaign website, she directly profited, in excess one million dollars, from the genetic engineering agriculture industry, trading a company with a Monsanto partnership, and that the partnership with Monsanto focused on soybean genetics.

Sussman, who is probably responsible for the Sussman-Pingree household’s high finance, is widely known in political circles as one of the top donors to Democratic causes across the nation—and especially in Maine. In the months following this trade, potentially the largest liquidation on Pingree’s entire disclosure, Sussman cut checks to numerous political action committees and organizations, some in the six-figure range.

It would appear that the Pingree/Sussman million-dollar Monsanto deal may have provided liquidity to the Pingree For Congress re-election campaign, numerous Democratic PACs and other causes.  This may be especially true when it came to funding Democratic causes in Maine.

The hypocrisy is stunning – in an election year where Pingree, and virtually every organization they supported ran at least in part on issues such as class division, the supposedly too-powerful and often abusive nature of large corporations, income inequality and more – Pingree and Sussman were financing their operation with profits they earned investing in and doing exactly what she campaigned against.

Monsanto and Dupont are the only American research partners Evogene publicly discloses; however, Genetic Engineering & Biotechnology News reported in 2008 that Monsanto had purchased a 13% ownership stake in Evogene for $18 million, with an option to purchase $12 million more, making the Evogene/Monsanto partnership more than just a simple research arrangement – it is, in fact, a deep-rooted financial partnership, with Monsanto gaining exclusivity through their ownership stake.

An experienced hedge fund manager like Sussman certainly knows the ins-and-outs of his investments. There is no way the Sussman-Pingree household was not aware that they were financially invested in and with Monsanto in Evogene.

By S.E. Robinson
Maine Wire Reporter

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About Steve Robinson

Steve Robinson the editor of The Maine Wire. A native of Dexter, Maine, Robinson is a graduate of Bowdoin College.

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