Extensive testing of the 2007 Southern rice crop has turned up no evidence of the LLRice601 or other LibertyLink transgenic events that have caused turmoil in the U.S. rice industry for more than a year.
With 960,000 metric tons or 21 million hundredweight of green rice sampled for testing as of Sept. 20, USA Rice Federation officials said tests have so far been negative for the LibertyLink traits, whose discovery in August 2006 led foreign governments to close their markets and U.S. rice prices to plummet.
“The two largest cooperatives and other mills in Arkansas are testing every load of long grain rice that crosses their scales,” said Bob Cummings, senior vice president at the USA Rice Federation. “We're also getting results from testing in Louisiana and Texas.
“A lot of work is going into this, which is part of the seed plan the industry put together to try to resolve this issue,” said Cummings, speaking on a telephone conference call with ag media representatives Sept. 26. “We are getting some very strong and favorable results now.”
During the conference call, USA Rice Federation Chairman Al Montna repeated his request that USDA officials release a report on the investigation of the LibertyLink trait issue. The Agriculture Department's Animal Plant Health Inspection Service began looking into the development last August.
“We believe we have a very good chance of regaining the European market (because of the testing),” said Montna, a rice farmer from California. “But we need the release of the report to be part of our discussions with European Union officials on Oct. 10.”
Montna, Cummings, USA Rice President and CEO Betsy Ward and Reece Langley, USA Rice vice president for government affairs, met with Bruce Knight, undersecretary of agriculture for marketing and regulatory programs, the afternoon of Sept. 26 to press for the report's release.
Cummings said the current testing for the LLRice601 trait is being done at the 0.01 percent level using the standard “P35S::BAR” test. Samples are being pulled from individual truckloads and co-mingled with other shipments.
He said the rice harvest currently is centered on Arkansas, the nation's largest rice producing state, and is moving into Missouri. The Arkansas rice harvest was estimated to be 58 percent complete as of Sept. 24.
“A lot of work is going into this,” said Cummings. “The mills are pulling the samples and sending them to an independent laboratory. The lab tests the rice for the presence of the LibertyLink trait and provides a certificate to the mill which forwards it to USA Rice.”
USA Rice arrived at the testing program and the remainder of its seed plan after a sample of 2003 foundation seed rice of the variety Cheniere was found to contain a trace amount of genetic material from LLRice601, a rice line that was genetically altered to be resistant to LibertyLink herbicide.
The LibertyLink trait, which was not approved by USDA at the time, would allow rice farmers to treat fields of commercial rice for red rice, a cousin of the commercial rice plant that can leave black seed hulls in bags of cooking rice.
Rice millers, such as the 9,000-member Stuttgart, Ark.-based Riceland Foods cooperative, subsequently decided not to purchase the Cheniere variety of rice from its farmer members as a precautionary measure.
During the press conference, Montna described the contents of a letter he sent to former Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns expressing the rice industry's frustration with the lack of a definitive report on the LibertyLink situation. The federation later released a copy of the letter.
In it, Montna notes that USA Rice Federation and USDA staff members have been discussing the challenges facing the rice industry, especially in the European Union, and the best options for the secretary's and USDA's engagement.
“While these discussions continue, I must note that the lack of a comprehensive investigative report by USDA explaining how traces of regulated genetically engineered events entered the commercial supply is limiting our recovery,” Montna wrote.
“EU officials have made it clear that current emergency inspection requirements on U.S. long grain rice will not be removed absent the results of USDA's investigation. These inspection requirements are the single greatest factor preventing a return to normal commercial rice exports to the EU.”
A USA Rice delegation traveled to Europe in mid-September to meet with the EU trade as well as European Commission officials but was unable to arrive at any solutions to the current EU ban on U.S. long grain rice exports.
Asked about the cost of the testing program and other steps being taken by USA Rice to respond to the GMO rice problem, USA Rice officials declined to put a price tag on the efforts.
“Clearly, there are additional costs throughout the food chain,” said Cummings, “but it's part of what the industry has to do. There was a cost if we did nothing.”
Prior to the LibertyLink incident, the European Union was buying 275,000 to 300,000 metric tons of long grain rice annually, he noted. “Europe barred any further exports while Iraq and Japan required us to begin testing. At least 60 percent of our exports have been impacted.
“The cost of losing markets is just unacceptable,” said Montna. Looking at the bigger picture, “the great victory will be when we regain the European market.”
During the conference call, USA Rice officials also said they are continuing to press the Senate Agriculture Committee to pass its version of the 2007 farm bill.
“Sen. Harkin has said he will try to move the bill before the Senate leaves for its Columbus Day recess,” said USA Rice's Langley. “He has said committee members have been working behind the scenes on the new legislation, but funding appears to be the major hurdle.”