After the fallout has settled from the discovery of a trace amount of genetically modified rice in the U.S. long-grain commercial rice supply, one question will linger. How long can U.S. agriculture survive a zero tolerance policy for GM crops?
“It's a big problem,” said Milo Hamilton, a rice market analyst with FirstGrain.com. “If you accept biotechnology, you are going to have leakage. The probability is that it's going to happen.”
And every time it does, the non-agricultural media hits the panic button, and everybody runs for the exits. But it's not like farmers can laugh about it when it's over. Millions of dollars disappear in the rush to judgment, even though the protein in this case is approved for use in other crops, including corn in some European Union countries, and in Japan.
Someone with common sense would stop right here and ask if it really made a difference to one's digestive tract whether this particular protein entered the stomach from a plate of pork-fried rice or from a corn dog. But unfortunately, common sense and the fact that the protein is proven to be safe for food and feed has nothing to do with it.
The issue has provided the world with an opportunity to develop a rational process to address mistakes involving biotech and biotech research. Instead, the world engages in games of political football.
After the discovery was made public, the European Commission promptly ordered that imports of long grain rice from the United States be certified free of the unauthorized genetically modified strain. Japan made it easy for itself, simply suspending all imports of U.S. long grain rice.
Consumers do have the right to choose between genetically modified and non-GM foods. But it shouldn't be lost on the skeptical observer that the EU and Japan are awful quick to deny access to their markets, or perhaps deny access long enough for prices to take a huge hit.
In good news, there are apparently no objections about trace contamination from Mexico, Haiti or the Cuba, which are large export markets for U.S. long grain rice. Hungry people in poor countries do not waste their time pondering the origins of a perfectly good bowl of rice.
In the short-term, Hamilton is advising his customers to identity preserve their harvested rice by variety and or hybrid. There is some early evidence, not substantiated, that the GM rice appears only in certain varieties. If this turns out to be so, it could benefit rice producers who have segregated their rice. Rice varieties or hybrids not containing the GM rice should be able to attain the requisite certification for the export market.
In the long-term, we need to seek a rational process to eliminate the lack of understanding and stubborn paranoia that currently undermines the considerable benefits of biotech and biotech research.