Concern over testing for GM trait in rice

In mid-August a USDA announcement hit the rice industry like a bombshell. A GM trait (Bayer CropScience’s LibertyLink) had been found in the U.S. rice supply.

Few were surprised when the immediate aftermath included a market downturn, a shocked farming community, trading partner fears, a promised APHIS investigation, and the inevitable lawsuits.

But several months down the road, a key question is now being tackled: how best to rid U.S. rice of the GM trait?

All segments of the rice industry agree that part of the solution is a ban on planting Cheniere, so far the only variety found to have the offending GM trait. They also agree part of the solution is a genetic test (known as “35S-bar PCR”) to check the rice supply, with a concentration on foundation seed stocks of all varieties currently being planted.

Prior to the start of next growing season some in the rice industry, including the USA Rice Federation, are in favor of conducting 35S-bar PCR tests at a 0.01 percentage on all commercial seed stocks. Those in favor say having rice seed pass that level of scrutiny — much more stringent than used in previous tests on grain — would lessen European Union worries and help bring the U.S. export market back to health. The EU accounts for some 5 percent of U.S. exports.

But prominent Mid-South seedsmen have serious concerns with the proposed 0.01 percent testing level. They say such a test has yet to be scientifically validated by Bayer. Without that validation there are fears the test could lead to inaccurate results and further market damage.

Those advocating for the more stringent testing level “want to get something done ASAP,” says Randy Woodard, who runs Cache River Valley Seed in Cash, Ark. “But I don’t see how any industry members could have much more knowledge about this 0.01 percent level of testing than some of the technical folks in the seed business. I’ve talked to labs, to those in the seed industry, to Bayer…Bayer definitely wants this test to be accurate. Obviously, their neck is stretched out plenty far…

“And our industry can’t afford a bunch of inaccurate test results that might not really apply to what’s happening. Let’s get this testing technique and process right the first time rather than say we’ll come back and correct it if something doesn’t go right.”

Jacko Garrett, a rice seed producer from Danbury, Texas, says he believes a deal that’s palatable to all industry segments can be reached because all “are working in good faith. If that continues it’ll help as much as anything.

“The need for the entire rice industry to find common ground has never been greater. At this point, we’ve got to use some good judgment. The worst thing we can do is jump in and make hasty decisions. We’ve got to eliminate the trait but rice farmers and seedsmen also have got to have a reasonable testing level for the products they produce. Otherwise, we’ll paint ourselves into a corner. Let’s not make tolerance levels tougher than what our customers will accept.”

And right now, the customer holds the aces.

Milo Hamilton, a marketer with Firstgrain, Inc., and Delta Farm Press contributor, advises clients throughout the rice industry chain. He’s spoken with many “experts who know the European customers and are absolutely convinced if we don’t apply European standards to the marketplace, we’ll lose their business. And in the end it’s all about the customer and what he perceives. It isn’t about what we want, what’s rational or anything else. It’s about what the customer wants. And if he doesn’t want our rice, for whatever reason, that’s our problem, not his. At the same time, the customer has to have reasonable expectations.

“We’ve got an ongoing problem with the EU. They have zero tolerance so if they find the material, they’ll reject the rice. Even if the (LL601 trait) is deregulated here in the United States — and there’s a strong prospect of that — it’s still illegal in Europe. It’s a legal and political issue there, not a real health concern.”

Should the U.S. testing standards be geared towards satisfying the EU?

“It’s very sad we’ve lost Europe,” says Hamilton. “It may just be 6 percent of U.S. exports, but it’s a prime cut. The European millers want this resolved and definitely want our rice. Everyone should understand that Europe’s rice business is American in orientation. In Japan, they’re forced to take our rice. In Europe, they want our rice — they like the way it looks, the way it tastes — but are legally restricted from taking it.

“This isn’t a situation without hope. But we’ve got to get this (GM-trait purge) done properly.”

Before adopting industry-wide standards and testing regulations, Randy Ouzts is asking for a little patience and a lot of dialogue.

“We need to slow down a bit,” says the general manager of Memphis-based seed company HorizonAg (the marketers of Clearfield rice). “The science part of this isn’t ready yet to accommodate what the mills want.”

Why is that the case?

“PCR tests are extremely sensitive. The current standard for testing most crops is 0.10 percent. That’s been going on for a long time.

“The request from the rice industry is to move to 0.01 percent for all commercial seed. To my knowledge that’s never been done with any grain crop. Only now is that being asked of the rice industry because of an EU demand.”

Does that have to do with EU laws or is it an arbitrary level it set?

“Most everything going overseas is tested at 0.10 percent when a customer requests GM-free grain. The opinion of many is the new 0.01 percent EU proposal for rice is simply an arbitrary number. Though it’s now law there, essentially what they did was pull up the bridge on the moat and shut the castle gates for now. It’s a nice way of saying, ‘Until you meet this, don’t send us any more rice.’ They might as well have gone to zero — no tolerance whatsoever. They’ve given the U.S rice industry a number that’s impossible to hit…and a tremendous dilemma for seedsmen trying to appease the market demands being leveraged on growers by the mills.

“No matter how much we test over here, the EU can test over there and likely find something if they want to. They’re just not going to take any U.S. rice right now. If that’s WTO-related or something else, it’s as much political as anything.

“The mills are saying to the seedsmen and growers, ‘Since the EU demands this, we’ve got to do it to get back into that market next year.’ But these things aren’t solved that fast and history has shown that. Look at the experiences with the Starlink situation — we’re years removed from that contamination and it’s still around.”

Ouzts wonders what segment of the rice industry will end up driving the clean-up truck.

“So many are wondering who’s god in this situation? Who can say, ‘No,’ and get away with it? The mills can certainly say, ‘We’re not buying your rice unless you do what we say.’ We’ve even heard of some anti-trust discussions making the rounds with people questioning whether the mills can collectively say, ‘Do this, or else.’

“This is a lawyer’s dream — getting an entire industry to start shooting at each other. It’s time for all factions of the industry to come together and find an acceptable answer that fits the entire trade.

“As it stands today, too much is being asked of the seedsmen. All we’re doing is saying, first, ‘You’re drastically impacting our ability to run our businesses. It’s time to begin processing seed for the 2007 crop and we’re at a standstill until an agreement is reached.’ Second, ‘You’re asking us to participate in something we’re told is not yet completely scientifically attainable.’

“According to Bayer’s designated labs, the testing procedure is still being validated. And it’s also extremely risky according to technical personnel in the industry who understand PCR testing and what might be shown once this level is attempted…In the opinion of many key member of the rice industry, it’s not worth the risk.”

What needs to be done short-term and long-term?

“First, let the USDA report what they’ve found,” says Ouzts. “Once that happens, let’s find some common ground between the players. Let’s do that instead of one side driving everyone else to accept a decision that hasn’t necessarily involved the entire trade when it was made.

“I can tell you how serious it is for some of my producer processors of rice seed. A couple have already said, ‘You know, I may just sit this year out. I may not sell seed in 2007 because it’s too risky. The chances of being sued should something else happen are too high and the risk can’t be managed.’”

Despite asking for more study of testing procedures, Garrett understands the urgent need for a solution. “We all know this problem has a short fuse. Rice will be going into the ground in late February or early March. That’s not far off.”

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