Proctor: Seeking a resolution to the GM-rice crisis

Stuart Proctor has an unenviable job. Even during the best of times, the USA Rice Federation president has to juggle — and find resolution for — many diverse issues important to rice farmers, millers and merchants. That’s hard enough.

Add in the current GMO-tainted rice situation and Proctor says the small federation staff has faced a “Herculean” task.

On the afternoon of Aug. 30, Proctor spoke with Delta Farm Press about the current crisis, why he believes USDA’s crisis response deserves praise and his overriding hope for a quick, positive resolution. Among his comments:

Can you bring our readers up to date on what (the federation) is doing and what’s happening from your perspective?

“We spent the first… days here managing this issue from a macro point of view — both in managing it from a domestic... and international media (manner). Since (just) over 50 percent of the rice is consumed in the United States and the balance overseas, we really are talking about a global market.

“So, initially, we’ve focused on that macro environment. We’ve done everything from having 30 different media calls to being in constant communication with USDA officials at FAS, GIPSA (Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Administration), APHIS, (to speaking) with FDA officials and a (host) of foreign officials, to meetings and phone calls with Bayer, etc…

“We’ve been coordinating with our executive committee as they’ve directed us… through the issue… Our overseas staff has had discussions with officials in leading markets.

“(As a result of this) initial macro (approach), communications to our membership have been somewhat lacking. To be honest, it was a secondary priority.

“Now that we’re 10 or 11 days into this problem, we’re focusing more on member communications and… trying to get to the grassroots to tell them all the things we’ve been doing.

“Part of the way we’re doing that is through a conference call scheduled today… for the leadership… of the five entities that make up the rice federation. The president and two key staff members of the US Rice Producers Association have also been invited.

“We try to communicate with our membership through daily (releases) and private communications. But we’re not doing that as well as we should. So we’re going to focus more attention and resources on that now.”

Among the big questions down here is what varieties this GMO trait is in. Has APHIS told you anything regarding that or the timeframe when they expect to have those answers for farmers?

“We don’t have that answer. APHIS doesn’t know the answer. It’s an item under investigation. We do have assurances from APHIS that they’re giving this the highest priority and are working as fast as they can. It isn’t as fast as we’d hoped.

“As I recall… two months (was cited) in getting the answer to that question.”

Really, that long?

“Don’t hold me to that… Maybe it was their overall investigation about how it happened. That… may have been what was to take about two months.

“But we are comforted they’re giving this high priority and are working as diligently as they can.”

(Editor’s note: Proctor was correct. Following this interview, APHIS officials reportedly said it would take two or three months before answers about the case are forthcoming).

How about the current market situation and how you see that shaking out? Also, is there any information you might provide regarding overseas customers?

“I… don’t want to speculate. The price has dropped pretty sharply today…

“Before (the USDA announcement on Aug. 18), we were absolutely in a rising price environment. Economics were driving that. According to USDA, this year’s production will be down at least 12 percent. The ending stocks will drop significantly — about a third (compared) to a year before. Those statistics will still drive the price.

“The question… is what will happen to the consumption numbers. It’s way too early to guess…”

Any steps you’re taking legally? I understand there’s a legal committee that’s been set up by the federation. Can you address that and what you’re looking at in that regard?

“We didn’t really have a legal committee. We had a couple of people that were looking at whether were should hire an attorney or not — and if we should, who it should be…

“We’ve hired a firm. But where we go with that and what we do, we don’t know.

“The firm will also help not only with legal considerations but there are also government relations kinds of functions we need some help with. That will be another part of what they’ll do for us.”

(Editor’s note: the federation hired the Atlanta-based firm, King and Spaulding).

Any ideas about how the trait got into the rice supply?

“I don’t know and don’t want to speculate. We’re anxious to hear what APHIS has to say on that.”

On Bayer paying for genetic tests of U.S. rice?

“They’ve agreed to pay for some of the tests. We’re going to have a meeting with them shortly and that’s one of the things we want to talk about. For example, which markets are they going to pay for the tests in? All that needs to be worked out.”

Regarding USDA’s handling of the trait discovery?

“I’m very complimentary of (USDA Secretary Mike Johanns), USDA in general and FDA for jumping out very early… and making a very strong statement about the fact they’ve reviewed all the scientific data and there’s no health concern, no food safety concern and there’s no environmental concern.

“(Johanns) then backed that up with a statement saying 70 percent of all processed food products on grocery store shelves in the United States contain some kind of genetically engineered ingredient.

“By them stepping out with that assurance… that this product is absolutely safe, it did a real service to consumers and the rice industry.

“Our big job here has been to reinforce that message and repeat it as forcefully as we can. Whatever success we’ve had to date, a lot can be (attributed) to (Johanns) and FDA.

“Also, as we’ve had discussions with FAS and (Johanns’) office, they’ve been of great help in our efforts to reinforce that message in international markets questioning (U.S rice).”

It seems, at least for farmers, there are a lot of gaps in the timeline worth questioning. The question about the USDA that farmers want to know about is the gap between July 31 when Bayer told them the trait was in the supply and the ensuing 18 days when it was announced.

“I’m not trying to dodge your question, but we’re not there yet.

“(It’s been) a Herculean effort… for our… very small staff to manage this issue. We’re still biting from a big apple and trying to manage the safety message. It’s too early for us to speculate on that. We’ll wait for APHIS to (investigate) and then we’ll evaluate all the information in their report and see if we come to the same (conclusions).”

Obviously, you understand intimately the situation with GMO rice and overseas markets not wanting it. I’m curious if your thinking about GMO rice has shifted in any way since this broke.

“This subject isn’t new to us. We talk about this every year when setting policies dealing with everything from rice research to government affairs.

“It’s a topic that comes up. It’s of great concern to producers… and millers also.

“Our position up to now, as an industry, is we won’t produce this product until there’s general consumer acceptance worldwide and there’s been regulatory approval for this product in all countries. That’s because we wanted to avoid the situation we’re in now.

“We talk about it every year — probably several times.

“(After the USDA announcement) our feeling was one of surprise. We’d been assured it wasn’t in commercial production in the United States. And we don’t want it to be.

“This is an evolutionary thing that’s unfortunate. But I’m not sure it’s changed our thinking in any way.”

Anything else?

“We’re trying to figure out where we are and the impact. In general, a bit over 50 percent of the rice produced in the United States is consumed domestically. The strong message — no safety or environmental concerns — seems to have resonated in the domestic market.

“Of the 10 largest international markets (for U.S. rice) that consume the balance (of the U.S. crop), there are questions (about the trait) in three. Most of our efforts are being devoted to those.”

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