Thursday, September 21, 2006
The disclosure last month that American long-grain rice has become widely contaminated with traces of an experimental, gene-altered rice has provoked an economic crisis for farmers and reignited a long-smoldering debate over the adequacy of U.S. oversight of biotech food.
Already, Japan has banned U.S. long-grain imports, noting, as have other countries, that the genetically altered variety never passed regulatory muster. Stores in Germany, Switzerland and France have pulled American rice off their shelves. And at least one ship last week remained quarantined in Rotterdam, awaiting word of whether its contents would be diverted or destroyed.
"Until this happened, it looked like rice farmers were finally going to make a profit this year," said Greg Yielding, executive director of the Arkansas Rice Growers Association. Instead, U.S. rice prices have slumped about 10 percent, and some expect market losses to reach $150 million.
Scientists are just now figuring out how LLRICE601 made its way into the nation's commercial rice supply. The company that developed it, Bayer CropScience of Research Triangle Park, N.C., says it abandoned the project in 2001.
The unapproved rice poses no threat to human or animal health, federal officials have assured the public. And the level of contamination is minuscule, on the order of just six genetically engineered grains in every 10,000.
But the growing economic fallout from LL601's unwanted and illegal reappearance -- including a handful of lawsuits against Bayer -- is a reminder that when it comes to food, public perception is as important as scientific assurances.
"We've been warning for years that something like this could happen," Yielding said, citing a December 2005 report from the Agriculture Department's inspector general that lambasted the government for not keeping a closer eye on companies developing new crops. "This is one of those deals where you hate to be right."
Genetically engineered crops are common in the United States, where 60 to 90 percent of the corn, soybean and cotton plants are enhanced with genes from bacteria and other organisms. Most of the added genes allow the plants to make their own insecticides or, as in LLRICE601, confer resistance to commonly used weedkillers.
But motivated by scientific, cultural and economic concerns, most countries around the world are finicky about biotech crops and allow relatively few in. That, in turn, has created tension for U.S. agriculture.
Although U.S. farmers say they favor, in theory, further development of the crops, many have called for delays in field testing or marketing until other countries agree to accept them. With few mechanisms in place to segregate engineered from conventional varieties, and wide availability of tests able to detect minute quantities of foreign DNA, they say it is not worth the risk that shipments will become contaminated and rejected.
"Once it's in the pipeline, it's very hard to get it out," said Jeffrey Barach, a vice president at the Food Products Association, a D.C. trade group.
Concerns have been especially high among rice growers, who sell big portions of their harvests to Kellogg for Rice Krispies, Anheuser-Busch for beer and Gerber for baby food, said Eric Wailes, an agricultural economist at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville.