Industry still trying to purge GM rice strains (18/8/2007)

EXTRACT: "I wish that day would never have happened," said Keith Glover, president and chief executive officer of Producers Rice Mill Inc. in Stuttgart. "It really created a lot of hardship for a lot of people: farmers, mills, exporters, seed dealers... everybody in the industry was impacted."

NOTE: There was never any GM rice commercialisation. All it took to bring about this catastrophe for the US rice industry was GM field trials.


Industry tries to purge rice strains
Arkansas Democrat Gazette, August 18, 2007

Aug. 18, 2006, is a day that many in the U. S. rice industry would like to forget.

One year ago today, the U. S. Department of Agriculture announced that traces of an unapproved, genetically engineered rice had been discovered in U. S. long-grain rice supplies.

"I wish that day would never have happened," said Keith Glover, president and chief executive officer of Producers Rice Mill Inc. in Stuttgart. "It really created a lot of hardship for a lot of people: farmers, mills, exporters, seed dealers... everybody in the industry was impacted."

The USDA and the Food and Drug Administration said the genetically engineered rice - one of Bayer CropScience's LibertyLink varieties - posed no health, food safety or environmental risks. But many foreign countries, which buy about half of each year's U. S. rice crop, shun genetically engineered foods. As a result, sales in nearly half of all U. S. rice export markets were negatively affected. Exports to the 27 member nations of the European Union halted almost completely.

The fallout from the problem was particularly acute in Arkansas where the state's farmers produce about half of all U. S. rice. In 2006, Arkansas' rice harvest was worth $ 892 million, making it the state's single most valuable crop.

The U. S. rice industry has been working to purge LibertyLink traits from the country's long-grain rice supply and restore the grain's international competitiveness and marketability. Great strides have been made, said Ray Vester, a Stuttgart rice farmer who is chairman of the USA Rice Federation's environmental regulatory subcommittee.

Arkansas took the lead by banning the 2007 planting of two rice varieties, Vester said. Cheniere and Clearfield 131 both tested positive for the "adventitious presence" or unintentional commingling of trace amounts of the protein that makes LibertyLink rice varieties resistant to the herbicide Liberty, also known as glufosinate. Farmers and millers then were urged to thoroughly clean their equipment before starting the 2007 harvest.

Whether those efforts have been successful in Arkansas will become apparent later this month, when the state's rice harvest begins, Vester said.

He and many others are confident that this year's crop is "clean."

"I really feel good about what we have in the field right now," said State Plant Board Director Darryl Little. "My biggest fear - and I suspect that of everyone in the industry - would be carryover of Cheniere and Clearfield 131 that was grown last year that might be in on-farm storage somewhere" and get mixed with the new crop, Little said.

Rice miller Glover echoes that concern.

"You're just nervous about that one kernel that might happen to show up" in a shipment to Europe, he said. "If they just happen to probe and hit that one kernel, that's all it takes to ban the whole shipment and have to ship it back."

For that reason, the U. S. rice industry is lobbying the EU to agree to "origin testing," Glover said, so that U. S. exporters can be confident their rice will be accepted for delivery before it is shipped. Alternatively, the EU's establishment of a minimum tolerance for the adventitious presence of genetically engineered traits could help to restart U. S. rice exports, he said.

USDA also could assist the rice industry by completing and releasing its long-awaited investigation into the LibertyLink case, Glover said, explaining "what happened, how it happened and what's being done to correct the problem."

The Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service has repeatedly promised to "determine the circumstances surrounding the release [of regulated material into supplies of commercial long-grain rice ] and whether any USDA regulations were violated." But APHIS spokesman Karen Eggert said Thursday "that investigation is not yet complete, so we haven't issued any final findings."

Not surprisingly, the genetically engineered rice problem has spawned hundreds of lawsuits during the past year. Most of those cases have been brought by farmers who are suing Bayer CropScience. Some cases, however, have been brought by rice buyers and seed dealers, and several cases also name rice mills as defendants.

In December, all such rice litigation - which now numbers 184 cases - was consolidated in U. S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri in St. Louis. Judge Catherine Perry was assigned to handle all pretrial matters such as discovery, which began last month.

Most of the rice-farmer plaintiffs are seeking class-action status for their complaints, said Scott Poynter, a Little Rock attorney who serves on the plaintiffs' executive committee. A hearing on that issue is scheduled for May 1, 2008.

"I think it's more than likely, if [Perry ] does certify the class, that the class case would be tried with her," Poynter said. "Individual cases that aren't part of the class, and any individual case where the plaintiff doesn't fall within the class definition will go back to their original venue and court."

Based upon the current scheduling orders, none of the rice trials will begin before 2009.

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