The USA Rice Federation seed plan to eliminate genetically engineered rice from the commercial supply was a success in 2007, USA Rice Federation Senior Vice President Bob Cummings told attendees of the USA Rice Outlook Conference, Dec. 4. USA Rice also recommended that the seed plan be continued for the 2008 crop.

The seed plan was devised to restore the marketability and competitiveness of the U.S. rice crop after the introduction of a genetically engineered rice event into the commercial long-grain supply in August, 2006.

Test results for the 2007 U.S. long-grain rice crop show the “overwhelming absence” of genetically engineered rice traits, according to Cummings. “Rice farmers have produced a clean 2007 long-grain rice crop. I want to congratulate the rice industry, particularly the growers, for getting behind the seed plan and carrying it out.”

According to Cummings, a good share of the 2007 long grain crop was tested and the results show “very minimal presence” of Liberty Link traits. He said 608 voluntary test samples submitted to the USA Rice Federation represented a total of more than 1.62 million metric tons (about 36 million hundredweight) of long-grain rice in the five affected states, of which all but 0.5 percent were negative for the Bayer CropScience Liberty Link (LL) traits.

In Arkansas, samples tested positive for 8,250 metric tons of 1.4 million metric tons tested. In Louisiana, samples tested positive for 540 tons of 46,500 tons tested. Texas, Mississippi and Missouri tested 100 percent negative for the LL traits.

Cummings said that the 2007 USA Rice seed plan will be rolled over into 2008 “to ensure further elimination of the vestiges of the LL traits from the commercial supply.

“It's going to put more of a burden on producers and marketers, but we're talking about a long-term challenge to the industry. As we go forward, hopefully, the challenge will be less severe, but we have a ways to go purging the LL traits from the U.S. supply. As long as the LL601 trait remains illegal in every country except the United States and as long as consumers are not accepting the trait, we really don't have any other option.”

Cummings said that USA Rice is working with the U.S. Trade Representative's office, members of the USDA's Foreign Agricultural Service, European Commission officers and members of the European rice industry to reestablish trade with the European Union.

“Right now, our problem is that the Europeans require that all long-grain rice shipped there needs to be tested for LL when it arrives at the port. This has really stopped the trade almost entirely because it's a tremendous risk for both the U.S. exporter and the EU importer if you don't know your product is going to get into a country until an EU official tests the rice and tells you what to do.

“It would be much better to test the rice in New Orleans, or somewhere up the river, so we would know if it had the LL trait or not, then the exporter would feel more comfortable shipping it.”

USA Rice wants to change the EU regulation to accept a negative testing certificate from the United States rather than retesting in Europe. “We're looking at a market that was 280,000-plus tons in 2005-2006. That's now dropped down to 50,000 tons in 2006-2007.

“One thing that has been demonstrated is that there is a clear demand for U.S. long grain rice in Europe,” Cummings said. “Our customers there tried to source grains from South America and Asia, and it didn't work. The customers didn't like the characteristics of the substitute rice. So there is political and economic pressure in Europe to do what's best.”

In November, USDA and the EU reached a technical agreement to test U.S. rice in the United States prior to shipping to Europe. “It essentially pulled USDA into the process of saying that the rice on this ship going to Europe matches up with the test results.

“We hope to move from a technical success to a political solution on Dec. 19 when a group of member states in Europe will consider a recommendation from the European Commission to move away from destination testing to origin testing. If the vote goes the right way, we could see a change in the regulation in January 2008.”

A USDA/APHIS investigative report released in early October on how the GE rice got into the rice supply “answered hardly any of our questions of how LL 601 and LL 604 entered the commercial supply,” Cummings said. “The report confirmed that the traits were only in trace amounts — LL 601 in Cheniere only and LL 604 in CL 131 only.”

No enforcement action was taken against Bayer CropScience, the owner of the technology “because there wasn't any indication of them breaking a regulation.”

Cummings noted that despite its inconclusive findings, the report “took a lot of objections off the table, especially in the overseas markets. And USDA's ability to oversee biotechnology is stronger now than it was before the LL trait got into the commercial supply.”

APHIS also listed potential future regulations to ensure the incident doesn't occur again, noted Cummings. Among those:

  • If there is a contractual relationship between a technology provider and a rice research station, the agreement needs to be in writing.

  • There needs to be written contingency plans put out by technology companies to detail any corrective action that may have to occur.

  • More record keeping requirements.

  • Saving of seed samples for 10 years.

  • Increasing distances between test plots.

APHIS is pushing for increased subpoena authority, “which would have to happen under the Plant Protection Act,” Cummings said.

In addition, APHIS will encourage biotechnology companies and cooperators to participate in a recently-formed, volunteer stewardship program called the Biotechnology Quality Management System.

“The agency is also considering a comprehensive revision of its biotechnology policies.”