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No easy answers in clean-up of GM rice situation

The Arkansas Plant Board Seed Committee unanimously recommended the state ban most planting of Cheniere rice in 2007.

The proposed ban comes after a mid-August USDA announcement that trace amounts of a genetically modified trait (Bayer's LibertyLink 601 at a level of some six grains per 10,000) had been found in the U.S. rice supply. Following that announcement the market experienced turmoil as several major rice importers — chief among them the European Union — balked at taking U.S. rice.

The rough draft proposed by the seed committee reads:

“Trace amounts of rice with characteristics of commercial impact have been identified in the Cheniere variety of rice. Due to this mixture, anyone who sells, offers for sale, plants, produces, harvests, stores, distributes, transports, or processes (conditions) for planting the Cheniere rice variety would be subject to these laws and regulations and any penalties contained therein. Breeder, Foundation, or Registered Cheniere seed stock for 2007, 2008 or 2009 planting that is tested as negative* will not be subjected to this regulation. These laws and regulations would also apply to any other variety or lot of seed (variety not stated or unknown) identified either from a contaminated seed stock source or tested as having a contamination with rice with characteristics of commercial impact.

“No Cheniere rice seed shall be sold for rice production in 2007. An allowance is made for increase of Cheniere seed production in 2007 for 2008 and 2009 seed stocks provided that all seed stocks are certified negative for LL traits. Rejects from seed stock increases will be held and not sold to first points of delivery in the 2007 crop milling year.

“Negative within specific detection levels.”

Adopting the draft is “a way to keep the option open to produce (Cheniere) at a later date,” said Mark Waldrip, seed committee chairman. “It isn't a commitment to do that, but the seed would be available. If there's not another ban a year from now, it could happen…The word being used in a lot of discussions is to ‘purge' the system. I think banning Cheniere in the 2007 growing season is a primary component of that.”

The board then went into a wide-ranging discussion beginning with whether the 2007 ban would extend to registered seed, as well. On the chance the purge works quickly, the option to plant the popular variety needed to remain open, said Ray Vester, the Plant Board rice farmer representative. That way there would be Cheniere seed available in 2008.

But committee members repeatedly warned that a ban on Cheniere in 2008, or even further, was a distinct possibility.

“Even if the samples test clear and registered-grade seed is produced, we may choose to not allow (Cheniere) be grown again in 2008,” said Waldrip.

“So, if you're planting registered seed in the spring of 2007 and harvest it in the fall…that means some Cheniere could be planted this coming spring,” said Noal Lawhon, Plant Board member. “You could do that and still not be able to sell it.”

“Someone will have to explain to growers that if they plant registered Cheniere, not only might they not be able to sell it for seed, but they may not be able to sell it at all,” said Plant Board member Otis Howe. “That may not be (under our control), but we need to make sure that information gets out.”

Vester pointed to Bayer's move to get LL601 approved for human consumption in the United States. But the company has “already stated they won't make a similar move anywhere else. So that won't help us any. We're trying to hit what the EU is asking for…(The proposed 0.01 testing level) also comes into play in Canada because they're getting ready to change their regulations. They'll tighten them up and the fear is we'll lose Canada as an export market. If we lose Canada, the supply of rice will grow and it'll hammer the price.”

Currently, the only thing buoying the rice price “is corn, soybeans and wheat. If it wasn't for those, I think today the (CBOT) rice price would be $7.50 per hundredweight. Look (at prices) over the last few weeks and rice hasn't done anything. It's just sitting there…What this (proposal) says to the EU is ‘we're making every effort to clean up our problem.'”

As for how long producers have to get rid of any Cheniere they might have in bins, Scott Gower, vice president of commodity operations for Riceland Foods Inc., referenced discussions at a recent USA Rice Federation-sponsored meeting in Dallas. “The dealers said any rice that tested positive for the LibertyLink trait should be out of the seed system by the end of April. The millers then said any LL rice should be out of the entire system by July 31 — the end of the marketing year…If you get it in before then, we'll process it.”

As for the document that came out of the Dallas meeting, “we noticed nothing regarding first points of delivery clean-ups and/or plant inspections,” said John Alter, president of the Arkansas Rice Producers Association. “This may not be (under) the authority of the Plant Board but it would appear there's another segment in the supply chain that should be addressed in a total clean-up package…Any remaining (Cheniere) rice in a bin that a producer may have dumped 2,000 bushels (of another variety) on top of. The seed supply is the most important, of course.”

Every farm storage structure on every farm is a potential source of contamination, noted Waldrip.

The only way to address the vast array of contamination points is through education, said Vester. “I don't think we have the capability to inspect all facilities. And what about any farmer who doesn't clean out his combine? It doesn't take but a few grains. That has to come from education…I know guys that never clean their trucks out. The first load to the mill is wheat mixed with rice. I don't think anybody has the authority or capability to police that.”

The Cheniere clean-up will be at a “unique level” for the entire rice chain, said Waldrip. “Every farmer, dealer, handler — anyone in the chain — needs to understand the clean-up needs to be as near absolute as it can be. Shoot for perfection and hope it's okay.

“This isn't the type of clean-up a farmer is typically accustomed to. Some seed people are accustomed to a more extensive clean-up. This is at that level, or beyond. To get every farmer in the state, in the rice-producing belt, to sign on for it will be a big educational undertaking.”

In Arkansas, the point of first delivery may be a mill. If the problem isn't cleaned up, the mills will take a hit, said Vester. “The mill doesn't want to lose customers — whether going in or coming out. If this problem continues, it will destroy the Southern rice industry. Not just the farmer but the merchandiser, the seed dealer, and the mills that process…There are some testing facilities that say if there's one (offending) grain in 10,000, they'll find it…”

Alter asked how the testing would be paid for. He was told that under the proposed legislation, the Plant Board has no control over that.

“The only remedy for that would be for someone to go before the state legislature and ask for funds,” said Howe.

Darryl Little, Plant Board director, said some preliminary numbers were run on what it would cost to test all of the seed. “I think the projection was over $600,000.”

Waldrip cautioned that the purging process was no good with regulations alone. To get rid of the problem, regulations must be adopted by everyone in the industry.

“There's a tendency for us to think about this in terms of ‘we'll accomplish what's needed by this regulation, this regulation and this regulation,'” said Waldrip. “At the end of the day, a whole lot of this is driven by what a rice buyer — a mill, or whatever — wants. You don't have to do it his way, but he doesn't have to buy your rice.”

Several seed dealers then strongly cautioned against adopting the proposed 0.01 testing level, which is much stricter than the earlier level of 0.05. They said looking at such levels would mean many false-positive readings and could lead to more varieties being erroneously tagged as harboring a GM trait.

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