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GE rice raises export concerns

Less than seven months after an unauthorized strain of genetically engineered rice showed up in U.S. rice crops, another strain has appeared, affecting 16 percent of all long-grain rice seed just as planting season begins.

"This has caused some tremors in the deep South," where both types of contaminated rice appeared, said David Coia, spokesman for USA Rice Federation, an advocacy group for the U.S. rice industry.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service announced March 5 that a type of long-grain rice known as Clearfield CL131 can't be planted this spring because testing by a private company revealed the "possible presence of trace levels of genetic material not yet approved for commercialization." APHIS is conducting tests to determine what type of GE material Clearfield rice is contaminated with, and whether it violates USDA regulations.

This follows the announcement last August that another type of long-grain rice seed, Cheniere, was contaminated with LLRICE 601, a GE strain developed by Bayer CropScience. Prior to the contamination, no GE rice was allowed in the United States, but USDA regulators approved LLRICE 601 in November, stating that it poses no risks to human or environmental health.

Nevertheless, LLRICE 601 isn't approved in Europe, Japan or other countries, and farmers are reluctant to plant Cheniere rice in case it contains GE seed and thus can't be exported. In addition, "All the U.S. rice millers have made it clear they won't purchase rice if it tests positive for LLRICE 601 traits," Coia said.

The 2006 U.S. rice crop was estimated at $1.9 billion, and Coia said Cheniere rice accounted for 15 percent of that. Cheniere is planted in the five southern U.S. rice-producing states—Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri and Texas—but not California, which doesn't grow long-grain rice.

"Farmers have had plenty of time to come up with an alternate plan for fields where they used to plant Cheniere," Coia said. But that's not the case with the newly contaminated Clearfield seed, which accounted for 16 percent of the 2006 U.S. rice supply. Coia said three acres in Louisiana were already planted with Clearfield seed when the USDA ban was announced, and planting is currently underway in Texas and Mississippi.

"Some seed dealers say they have other seed to replace Clearfield, but it's certainly not going to be easy for many of them to come up with other types of seed this close to planting," Coia said.

To keep GE rice out of the U.S. supply and reassure foreign customers that American rice is GE-free, USA Rice released a plan of action in November. The plan calls for a standard seed-testing protocol by state certifying agencies to identify LLRICE 601, and for growers to provide documentation certifying LL-negative results, as monitored by either the Association of Official Seed Certification Agents or the USDA.

The Arkansas State Plant Board approved a similar plan March 14. Arkansas accounts for about half of all the rice planted in the United States—$892 billion in 2006. Missouri also is requiring that all rice grown in the state be verified LLRICE 601-free.

Also on March 14, the California Rice Board called for a moratorium on all experimental GE rice plantings in the state. In 2006, two experimental GE rice plantings were approved in California.

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