Natural Foods Merchandiser

Global concerns rise over GM rice

The unauthorized strain of genetically modified rice found in Southeastern U.S. rice crops in August is causing concern on three continents and is playing havoc with U.S. rice exports from not only the Southeast but now from California as well.

India is the latest country to protest GM rice after LLRICE601, a nonregulated GM protein developed by Bayer CropScience and planted in U.S. test crops from 1998 to 2002, was discovered earlier this year in commercial long-grain rice in the Southeastern United States. Despite American government assurances that the contaminated rice was not being exported, the European Commission discovered GM rice in a September shipment from the United States to Europe.

Following failed negotiations with the United States on a mutually agreeable rice-testing protocol, the EC took matters into its own hands and announced Oct. 23 that all U.S. long-grain rice imports must be tested before entering the European Union.

Claiming that American rice is safe, USA Rice Federation Chairman Al Montna said, "The Commission is imposing an overzealous testing regime on a product for which such strictures are unnecessary. The net result of this decision is the denial to European consumers of wholesome U.S. rice."

The EU decision follows the Sept. 27 Japanese mandate that it will test shipments of all varieties of U.S. rice, rather than just the long-grain rice believed to be contaminated by LLRICE601. That announcement has "surprised and disappointed" the California Rice Commission, said President and Chief Executive Tim Johnson. More than half of California's medium- and short-grain rice is exported to Japan.

According to August tests by the California Rice Experiment Station, LLRICE601 is not present in California long-, medium- or short-grain rice or seed. Furthermore, said CRC spokeswoman Elizabeth Horan, no LLRICE601 field trials have been conducted in California.

Craig Winters, executive director of Seattle-based anti-GM activist group The Campaign, said although he hadn't heard of GM rice in California, because LLRICE601 is unregulated, "it's hard to say exactly how far the spread is."

Hoping to avoid such problems in their country, representatives from the All-India Rice Exporters Association, Bharatiya Kisan Union and Greenpeace held a meeting in Delhi Oct. 31 to urge the Indian government to commit to keeping Indian rice GM-free.

According to Greenpeace, Monsanto-Mahyco is conducting open-field trials of genetically engineered rice in 10 locations across India, including one in Karnal, where much of the country's exported basmati rice is grown. Indian rice farmers are concerned the GE rice could spread to their fields, contaminating the country's rice supply and jeopardizing Indian rice exports.

"We want the government to draw the correct lesson from the plight of the U.S. rice industry and stop further GE rice field trials in [India] now. Not heeding that warning will prove to be a costly and irreversible blunder," said Anil Adlakha, executive director of AIREA.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced in September that it would begin deregulating LLRICE601 because the strain is already in the marketplace. On Sept. 14, the Center for Food Safety in San Francisco filed a petition with the USDA to stop federal approval of LLRICE601 for commercialization, and instead regulate it as a plant pest.

According to Michael Hansen, Ph.D., a senior scientist with Yonkers, N.Y.-based Consumers Union, LLRICE601 could earn "retroactive approval" from the USDA within the next few months. But just because the American government says the GM rice is OK, doesn't necessarily mean it is, he said.

"There's no mandatory requirement for safety testing of any GM crop," Hansen said. "LL601 [rice] was only planted until 2002, but nearly five years after that, they're still finding it in rice crops. How could that happen?"

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVII/number 12/p. 13

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