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Rice Industry Troubled by Genetic Contamination

by Rick Weiss

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.

So far, gene escapes have not had dis­cernible effects on human or ani­mal health, lead­ing some pro­po­nents to sug­gest that the real prob­lems are the strict rules in place from the ear­ly days of biotech, when safe­ty was a major con­cern.

“Most of these issues have been issues of reg­u­la­to­ry com­pli­ance and qual­i­ty con­trol,” said L. Val Gid­dings, pres­i­dent of PrometheusAB, a Sil­ver Spring-based biotech con­sult­ing firm. “These are impor­tant, but they aren’t safe­ty con­cerns.”

Gid­dings and some oth­ers say it is time for more dis­crim­i­nat­ing stan­dards that would treat many biotech crops as envi­ron­men­tal­ly friend­ly instead of crim­i­nal­iz­ing every smidgen of errant DNA.

Oth­ers see things dif­fer­ent­ly.

“For years the indus­try said, ‘This will nev­er get out,’ ” said Joseph Mendel­son III, legal direc­tor of the Cen­ter for Food Safe­ty, a Wash­ing­ton advo­ca­cy group that has won sev­er­al legal chal­lenges against the Agri­cul­ture Depart­men­t’s han­dling of biotech crops. “Now it’s, ‘It will get out, but what does it mat­ter?’ We can have a sci­en­tif­ic debate about that, but in the mean­time it cer­tain­ly mat­ters a lot eco­nom­i­cal­ly, because so much of the world does­n’t want this stuff.”

U.S. farm­ers such as Zaun­brech­er have been caught in the mid­dle, fight­ing off domes­tic efforts to intro­duce gene-altered rice until inter­na­tion­al mar­kets warm to the prod­uct. He was going to plant a con­ven­tion­al vari­ety called Che­niere on at least 500 of his more than 2,000 acres, until he learned that it had become inex­plic­a­bly taint­ed with a weed­killer-resis­tant gene cre­at­ed by Bay­er Crop­Science of Research Tri­an­gle Park, N.C., that was unap­proved for rice.

In its place, he ordered Clearfield131, anoth­er non-engi­neered vari­ety, devel­oped by BASF of Ger­many. But on March 5, the USDA put out an emer­gency call to pre­vent all plant­i­ng of that vari­ety. Tests had found two lab­o­ra­to­ry-made genes not meant to be in it, one belong­ing to Bay­er and one that has yet to be ful­ly iden­ti­fied.

“Every­body’s frus­trat­ed,” said Bob­by Han­ks, who employs about 100 work­ers at Louisiana Rice Mill near Crow­ley. “At this point, the indus­try has very lit­tle con­fi­dence in researchers to keep these things out of the food stream.”

Cyn­thia Sagers, a plant ecol­o­gist at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Arkansas, said USDA rules on how to iso­late exper­i­men­tal rice from oth­er vari­eties have not been strin­gent enough. Text­books say rice is a self-pol­li­nat­ing plant, mean­ing its pollen does not drift far. “But stand in an Arkansas rice field at 11:45 on a sun­ny day,” Sagers said, “and you’ll see a zil­lion bil­lion pollen grains blow­ing around.”

Even if the pollen is con­tained, acci­den­tal min­gling of engi­neered and con­ven­tion­al seeds occurs eas­i­ly, espe­cial­ly when biotech vari­eties are not restrict­ed to ded­i­cat­ed equip­ment and dis­tri­b­u­tion streams.

A string of recent court rul­ings has revealed reg­u­la­to­ry short­com­ings for oth­er biotech crops. In August, a fed­er­al judge crit­i­cized the USDA, say­ing it had “utter dis­re­gard” for the risks posed by plant­i­ngs of biotech corn and sug­ar cane that the agency had endorsed in Hawaii. Two rul­ings in Feb­ru­ary took the agency to task for not ful­ly con­sid­er­ing the risks posed by biotech alfal­fa and turf grass.

In the absence of stricter fed­er­al rules, some states have tak­en mat­ters into their own hands. When a com­pa­ny recent­ly sought per­mis­sion to grow rice endowed with human drug-pro­duc­ing genes in Cal­i­for­nia, offi­cials there said okay — if the com­pa­ny stayed at least 500 miles from the near­est rice field and wait­ed for a spe­cial rul­ing from the state’s Depart­ment of Food and Agri­cul­ture.

When the com­pa­ny sought instead to plant in Mis­souri, that state’s leg­is­la­ture with­held promised research mon­ey until the com­pa­ny gave up and moved to Kansas — a state that wel­comed the project in part because no oth­er rice is grown there.

Cindy Smith, deputy admin­is­tra­tor in charge of biotech­nol­o­gy reg­u­la­tion at the USDA’s Ani­mal and Plant Health Inspec­tion Ser­vice, said that over­sight has improved con­sid­er­ably in the past two years and that oth­er changes are com­ing. Cen­tral among them is a risk-based sys­tem that will stream­line approvals of biotech crops that are sim­i­lar to oth­ers with proven safe­ty records while rais­ing the bar for those that pose the great­est risks.

“The nature of our reg­u­la­to­ry sys­tem is that it has to con­tin­u­al­ly evolve . . . because we’re reg­u­lat­ing a tech­nol­o­gy that con­tin­ues to evolve,” Smith said. And though she said she “ful­ly appre­ci­ates” the grav­i­ty of the occa­sion­al fail­ing, Smith not­ed that the agency has over­seen more than 13,500 field tests on near­ly 80,000 loca­tions nation­wide, the vast major­i­ty with­out a hitch.

Yet in today’s glob­al mar­ket — in which biotech food is large­ly shunned, in part as a mat­ter of “green” phi­los­o­phy and in part as a covert means of trade pro­tec­tion­ism — that may not be enough, said Mont­na, the Cal­i­for­nia grow­er, who is chair­man of the USA Rice Fed­er­a­tion.

“Every­thing is about mar­ket accep­tance,” Mont­na said, not­ing that the rice fed­er­a­tion has pushed for stricter test­ing of all seed to pre­vent future sur­pris­es.

That would help not only farm­ers but seed com­pa­nies, too — some of which are now suf­fer­ing from decreased sales because their vari­eties have become con­t­a­m­i­nat­ed, and oth­ers of which are being sued for mis­plac­ing their genes.

“I’m see­ing a lot of very, very angry peo­ple,” said Adam Levitt, a Chica­go lawyer who is involved in a class-action law­suit against Bay­er that already includes hun­dreds of rice farm­ers and millers.

Bay­er spokesman Greg Cof­fey said the com­pa­ny should not be blamed if the fed­er­al rules that it fol­lowed are inad­e­quate.

“We do believe our work has adhered to USDA reg­u­la­to­ry guide­lines,” he said, com­plet­ing the cir­cle of blame that on many farms today is as famil­iar as the sea­sons.


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