Rice Industry Troubled by Genetic Contamination

By Rick Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 11, 2007

When Fred Zaunbrecher heard in August that the popular variety of long-grain rice he was planning to grow had become contaminated with snippets of experimental, unapproved DNA, the Louisiana rice farmer took it in stride and ordered a different variety of seed for his spring planting.

But when federal officials announced last week that the rice he and many others switched to was also contaminated -- this time with a different unapproved gene -- irritation grew to alarm. The two sidelined varieties accounted for about a third of last year's Southern rice crop, and planting was set to begin within days.

"Everybody's been scrambling for seed," Zaunbrecher said. "I have no idea whether there will be enough or not."

The tremors going through the U.S. long-grain rice industry -- amplified by the decision of many biotech-wary nations to restrict imports of U.S. rice until questions of purity are resolved -- have revealed how vulnerable a $1 billion agricultural sector can be to the escape of something as small as a molecule of DNA. But rice is not the only crop being affected by genetic pollution.

Eleven years after the first gene-altered crops got the go-ahead for U.S. planting, biotech acreage is at a record high. Almost 90 percent of U.S. soy and corn, as well as about 60 percent of U.S. cotton, is spiked with genes from other organisms, mostly to confer resistance to insects and to make the crops immune to weed-killing chemicals.

Yet some of those genes have spread to weeds, making them tougher to control. Biotech crops approved only as animal feed have found their way into human food. And plants engineered to make medicines in their tissues have escaped from their test plots.

"Something's not working," said Al Montna, who grows 2,500 acres of rice in California. "Something's got to change."

Some farmers are pointing fingers at biotech-seed producers, whose carelessness, they say, has allowed experimental DNA to drift into commercial varieties, transforming U.S. rice into a global pariah and sending the industry into its biggest crisis in memory.

Others are fed up with the Agriculture Department, which in the past six months has been scolded in three federal courts for not keeping adequate tabs on the burgeoning business of genetically engineered crops.

Whatever the root cause, the string of recent missteps has sullied an industry that, though long controversial in much of the world, has mostly grown under the radar in the United States.

Advocates say the biotech revolution has improved productivity while reducing the consumption of pesticides and tractor fuel. A report commissioned by industry leader Monsanto Co., released last week, estimated that biotech crops in 2005 allowed farmers to reduce their carbon dioxide emissions by 9 million tons -- equivalent to removing 4 million cars from the roads.

But increasingly, farmers are concluding that early assurances that engineered varieties could be kept segregated from conventional crops were overstated.

CONTINUED     1           >

© 2007 The Washington Post Company