Last Aug. 18, USDA head Mike Johanns held a press conference to say a LibertyLink trait had been found in the U.S. rice supply. Besides sending markets downward, the news sent the rice industry scrambling to clean up its supply.
There were also questions about the timing of USDA's announcement. Count Dwight Roberts, U.S. Rice Producers Association (USRPA) president, among the perplexed. In retrospect, however, there was a big clue the news wouldn't be good.
“USDA made the announcement about GM rice late on Friday afternoon. When you hear the government is coming out with something major on a Friday, it's not going to be good. They don't want to face the heat. If it's good, they announce it on a Monday or Tuesday morning.”
Following the USDA disclosure, Roberts immediately began working to keep foreign markets shored up and U.S. rice farmers in the information loop. And that work has continued since.
Recently, between trips abroad and meetings with rice industry officials, Roberts spoke with Delta Farm Press. Among his comments:
On the reaction to the USDA LL announcement…
“My first reaction to (hearing about the announced USDA press conference) was that Uruguay had formerly filed a WTO rice case.
“But it really wasn't surprising it was GMO-related. GMO problems have already happened — like with StarLink corn. We've probably been eating GMOs — and I'm not talking about rice — without realizing it for who knows how long?
“An example I point to is a Newsweek article years ago on Oaxaca (Mexico) farmers who noticed their corn was growing unusually large, with more ears. They figured out seasonal Mexican workers here in the United States took seed back home with them. ‘That American corn looks good. I'm going to carry a pound of seed home.’ So, all of a sudden, they were growing GM corn in Mexico.
What about the market reaction since? There's some conflicting data on how much this has actually hurt U.S. export markets.
“I'm sensitive to the problems this has caused. For the rice industry, Aug. 18, 2006, will go down in history. It's changed the rice world forever. But if this was going to happen, the best time was during tight stocks around the world. That's the situation we're in.
“I doubt many were surprised by the EU's reaction to this. Look at what they've done with beef imports. They've always been leery of GMO foods. Japan has the same mindset.
“But the EU is an important market. For some mills, Europe makes up a big percentage of their business.
“At the same time, the rest of the world hasn't really bucked against our long-grain rice. Knock on wood; we haven't seen any major disruption in trade.
“That's especially true of Mexico and Central America, the largest markets for long-grain rice. Close to half, maybe more, of the U.S. long-grain exports go there. That's something like 1.4 million to 1.5 million tons of U.S. rice.”
On the importance of dialogue with trading partners…
“Of course, the GM discovery spurred a considerable amount of discussion in Mexico and Central America. One of the first things I did was travel to all the major rice-buying countries in the Western Hemisphere and sat down with both the buyers of U.S. rice and their producer organizations.
“These meetings were actually before USDA deregulation took place. We wanted them to know this wasn't Frankenfood, not mad cow disease.
“The important message was to the producer organizations. The concerns of those importing U.S. rice were largely that the producers would tell their governments, ‘don't buy U.S. rice. It's GMO and that's bad.’ There were concerns they'd hook up with environmental groups and hurt trade.
“So I spent a lot of time explaining this. They'd ask, ‘How do U.S. farmers feel about GMOs?’ I'd say, ‘They know consumer perception must be kept at the forefront. If (you) don't buy our product, we've got a major problem.’
“But at the same time, farmers can't turn their back on this technology that allows them to keep farming and has a long list of benefits. Farmers can grow more on less land, there are conservation aspects of it, fewer insecticides and pesticides used and potential medical benefits. We can't turn our back on all that.
“I tell the farmers in these countries ‘don't turn your back on GMOs. If you do, it will come back to haunt you.’
“Since those meetings, I haven't heard any big complaints by producer groups.
“Everyone was watching a rice shipment to Costa Rica in early December. There had been environmentalists and an opposition political leader complaining about GMOs. But that ship — which had a certificate saying the shipment was free of GMO rice — was unloaded without any disturbance. The rice was milled and is currently on the supermarket shelf.
“But let me be perfectly clear in regards to GE rice: we're on thin ice to a large degree without knowing what will surface or where it will surface. Unfortunately, I guess its normal for folks to take this situation and use it to their advantage in the marketplace. As usual, farmers are the ones caught in the middle many times and bear the brunt monetarily. An effort to present a clean and healthy rice supply must be shared by everyone and not have all of the liability placed on farmers as was attempted early on.”
Some claim the Mexicans and Central Americans want the bullhorns put away on this.
“Yeah, they want us to shut up and stop making so much noise.
“Greenpeace and others are always going to stir things up. They always have — without regard to sound science.
“There have been some attempts at disruption in Costa Rica. I haven't seen anything like that in other Central American countries, though.
“In fact, when I was in El Salvador, I bought the major newspaper. One of the sections had a double-page agriculture feature. Much of it was on GM foods and the minister of agriculture was quoted saying it's a great technology that must be managed properly and will play an important role in El Salvador's future.
“We must be careful about treating what's considered a healthy, deregulated product as if it's poison.
“Latin American leaders have told me, ‘Americans need to be quiet about this. You're the only ones making noise. We want to continue buying your rice and don't want you calling attention to this.’
“In Mexico, the only thing I've seen in print was in a smaller newspaper before Christmas. There was a sentence or two in there about Mexican rice producers had complained to the government about GMO rice being imported.
“Since then, I've talked to the president of the Mexican Rice Producers Association, Pedro Diaz Hartz. I've known him for years. Ironically, he said, ‘Yeah, it happened. But the reason is we had a bunch of U.S. rice that was rejected in Europe and was dumped into the market and undercut everyone. It depressed prices, made Mexican mills upset and angered producers. Complaining about GMO rice was the farmers' reaction.’
“I said, ‘Pedro, we've got to find another way for you to complain.’ He agreed.”
More on the environment and markets…
“If the environmentalists are gaining ground with this GM rice issue, it isn't very obvious. Maybe they don't have as much (cachet) as they used to. Maybe they're spread thin. To date I do not know of any scientific proof that GMO rice is detrimental to human health or the environment. In fact, everything indicated is that it will improve human life and the environment.
“Even after all this we continue to sell rice in the Middle East. There is tremendous potential for U.S. rice sales to Brazil this year. If you look at what is happening in countries such as China and Indonesia and other key markets around the world, both suppliers and importers a very promising picture is painted for the American rice farmer.
“However, we must weather this current GE storm. I'm hopeful that we are moving in a positive direction but I think that it will take much all of 2007, at a minimum, to resolve the crisis.
“Where would we have been without this GM problem? I think we'd have made a bit quicker, higher climb. But these tight world supplies are helping us weather the storm.”
What about the different state plans to get rid of this GM trait? Your thoughts on what's been constructed?
“The one thing that really concerns me is we're treating a product that's perfectly healthy in a stand-offish way.
“I understand the need to have recommendations and plans in place. But I think the liability for it needs to be spread throughout the industry. There are so many different areas that could hold a presence of the GM material that could taint a shipment or seed. So it needs to be fair for all.
“I've heard from farmers that disagree with me. But I think this is actually a good opportunity to push the GM issue.
“The USDA hasn't really gotten a handle on it. They've come out and said it's healthy, but they haven't got a big program to get behind the technology. There's been no forcing of the debate and, sooner or later, that will have to happen.
“Let's get the truth out. Farmers need to get active on this. They need to give true producer organizations their backing. In the end it's up to all of the rice industry to resolve the problem with some strong support from the USDA.
“In the end I think this ordeal will be concluded with that famous phrase, ‘we've made a mountain out of a mole hill.’ But in the meantime, the beast is out of the bag.”