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GM rice poses threat to organics, other crops, watchdog says

Genetically modified rice may have contaminated American organic rice products. Because of this and other concerns, a consumer interest group says the GM crop should not receive federal approval for commercialization. Instead, it should be regulated as a plant pest.

Last month, a test crop of GM rice with a protein known as Liberty Link, or LLRICE 601, was found in commercial long-grain rice in the southeastern United States. After this discovery, the U. S. Department of Agriculture said it would begin deregulating LLRICE 601 to permit its use in food because the strain was already in the marketplace.

"We think it's really important that the USDA start regulating these rice varieties again, and not just have some fast-track approval of it just because it already got out," said Miyoko Sakashita, a staff attorney with the Center for Food Safety in San Francisco. "Once they're out in the environment you can't recall them—it's like letting the genie out of the bottle. They're reproducing and contaminating other products." She said the USDA seemed to be "kowtowing to the biotech companies—letting them push their agenda forward."

Liberty Link, which is resistant to herbicides, was approved for human consumption in 1999 in two other rice varieties that have not yet been marketed. The multinational biotechnology firm Bayer CropScience produces the GM rice.

"We filed a petition [Sept. 14] with the USDA," Sakashita said. "It's really a call to the USDA to rein in Liberty Link rice because of some of the setbacks it has had in terms of contaminating rice commodities and because they haven't done a proper environmental assessment.

Sakashita said the Center for Food Safety was concerned about plants developing herbicide resistance, which could result in farmers using either greater amounts of herbicide or stronger chemicals. She also said that previously, Bayer and the government believed that the Liberty Link protein was self-contained, but recent events have demonstrated how easily it can contaminate other strains.

Organic rice affected
According to an article in the Delta Farm Press , Arkansas Agriculture Secretary Richard Bell said, "Almost all the tests [on Arkansas rice] are showing up positive." One problem, he told that paper on Aug. 26, "is not knowing what variety [the Liberty Link trait] is in. I've told farmers that if they have storage space, to try and keep varieties separated. But everyone knows that by next week, we'll be in a harvest in a big way. And as we don't have enough storage space, through necessity, varieties will be mixed."

That's what concerns officials at Lundberg Family Farms, which manufactures numerous organic and conventional rice products and opposes any introduction of genetically engineered rice. Lundberg, based in Richvale, Calif., said that two types of its products may have been affected:

  • Lundberg Rice Chips were made from rice purchased from the southern United States, according to a recently released data sheet. "Some of the samples of this ingredient have tested positive for low levels of LLRICE 601, and some have tested negative. We have replaced this ingredient. Rice Chip packages with a ?Best By' date of July 7, 2007 or later contain 100 percent California-grown rice ingredients," company officials said, adding that seed stocks in California have tested negative for the GE strain.
  • 25-pound packages of Eco-Farmed Long Grain Brown Rice. If the package says "distributed by" Lundberg, it contains rice from the Southeast. If it says it was "manufactured by" Lundberg, it contains unaffected California rice. "In addition, the California-grown rice comes in a preprinted bag. These are often sold in bulk bins by retailers."

Neither of those products is organic, said Angie Traver, a spokeswoman for the company. So far, none of the company's organic products have conclusively tested positive for the trait, though one brown rice crop purchased from a southern farmer is suspect. The company and the farmer each had a sample of that crop tested. "They had mixed results on it—one came back positive and one came back negative," Traver said. "Given that they didn't have the ability to offer a conclusive result, they didn't want to inject uncertainty into the market."

Conventional and organic rice grown at a USDA research unit in Beaumont, Texas, has also tested negative for the Liberty Link protein, according to David Coia, a spokesman with the USA Rice Federation.

After the GM contamination was discovered, Japan banned all imports of U.S. long-grain rice, and the European Union and United Kingdom began requiring that U.S. rice shipments be verified GM-free before they are allowed in member countries. U. S. Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns said about 50 percent of the U.S. rice crop is exported and 80 percent of that is long-grain rice. The 2006 U.S. rice crop is estimated to be worth $1.9 billion. According to various reports, U.S. rice sales dropped 5 percent following the GM rice announcement.

In the Delta Farm Press article, Arkansas Agriculture Secretary Bell said part of the problem was the way information was released. "I don't believe this required a secretary of agriculture press conference. I believe that when it is necessary to release this type of information it should be done at the [Animal and Plant Health Inspection Services] level." APHIS is a division of the USDA. "The press conference gave it much more attention and fanned the flames more than it needed," he said. "We were fortunate it happened on a Friday afternoon."

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