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GE rice resistance: market rejects gene-altered crop

by Robert Schubert
CropChoice editor

(Feb. 22, 2002 – CropChoice news) – It’s further away from commercialization than transgenic wheat, but the prospect of genetically modified rice has consumers and farmers concerned.

"If there is consumer perception that GMO (genetically modified organism) is a risk, then we have to respect that," says Gary Simleness, who organically grows rice in northern California.

Aventis has backed off from commercializing the rice it engineered to resist the Liberty herbicide (glufosinate) largely because of warnings from millers and large value-added domestic and foreign producers that they’ll reject it. While farmers in the southern United States found that the so called LibertyLink rice worked well to combat the persistent red rice weed problem there, other growers question the wisdom of producing a crop that consumers don’t want.

With the insertion of a gene making it resistant to glufosinate, "we give growers the opportunity to control red rice," says Andy Hurst, Aventis manager for Liberty herbicide. The red rice weed is competes vigorously with rice crops and can decrease yields and the quality of the harvest.

Charles Reiners was one of 18 growers in Louisiana and Arkansas who participated in an experimental planting of LibertyLink in 2000. He planted the rice on 95 acres of the land he farms with his brother in Acadia County, Louisiana. The weed control was good, he says.

Despite these benefits, says Hurst at Aventis, "the biggest issue in bringing Liberty Link rice to market is gaining acceptance from processors. Currently, most of the millers are against it." He would not say what the company is doing to change their minds.

One researcher points out some of the possible agronomic problems with glufosinate-resistant rice.

"Rice and red rice are two cultivars of the same genus and species (Oryza sativa L.); unsurprisingly, the rate of genetic outcrossing between them is relatively high," says Fred Iutzi, a research assistant in agronomy at Iowa State University. "One can only fear that commercial introduction of rice with genes for glufosinate resistance would quickly lead to the transfer of those genes into the ambient red rice population. At that point, rice growers would be left with, one, a GMO rice technology that doesn't do its job and, two, a previously useful herbicide technology that no longer controls red rice."

Market resistance is real

Although a spokeswoman from the Kellogg Company in the United States refuses to speculate about whether the company would ever accept genetically modified rice to make cereals such as Rice Krispies, the German branch of Kellogg left little doubt. "We cannot use GM products because the consumer would not accept them," says spokesman Juergen Backes.

Beermakers Coors Brewing Co. and Anheuser-Busch, Inc. also sent negative signals about genetically modified rice. Both companies use the rice as an adjunct in some of their beers.

"We have no plans at this point to use GMO rice," says Coors spokesman Kevin Caulfield. The company yearly uses 60 million pounds of rice, most of which comes from California.

In the future, "we would say that we have no plans to use it," says Carlos Ramirez of Anheuser-Busch, Inc.

The California case

Those in the California farming community, responsible for growing the rice crop that in 2000 earned the state $174.3 million in exports and a total of $232 million, have expressed concern about the prospects of rejection from these companies and others. The fact that commercial production of genetically modified rice in the state is at least five to seven years away, says California Rice Commission Director Tim Johnson, has not allayed their fears.

Unlike soybeans and corn, rice has no commodity neutrality, meaning that it is more connected to consumers, Johnson says.

"Generally, rice producers are in need of more markets, so why jeopardize the existing markets when they don’t want GMO rice," asks Bryce Lundberg, director of organic certification at Lundberg Family Farms in California. The company has stated its opposition to the use of genetically modified organisms in agriculture on its website – http://www.lundberg.com/farm/gmo.html.

Former rice farmer and president of California Certified Organic Farmers Brian Leahy agrees: "The two transgenic food crops pushed hard – corn and soybeans – are hurting farmers because of market rejection." Almost one-quarter of the U.S. corn crop is planted with transgenic corn and nearly 70 percent with modified soybeans.

Consumers and value-added producers in Europe have responded by seeking non-transgenic varieties elsewhere. The value of corn exports to the European Union has fallen from $305,168,000 in 1996 to $1,613,000 last year, according to USDA statistics. Soybean exports to the European Union also have fallen off considerably as its buyers look to Brazil, where a moratorium on the cultivation of genetically modified crops continues, to supply soybeans for food and feed.

Although rice cross-pollinates less easily than corn and canola, it is an issue, Leahy says. The bigger concern is the ease with which small, lightweight rice seed blows around and hides in cracks and crevices of seeding, transportation and processing equipment. The prospect of farmers seeding transgenic rice, were it ever to reach commercialization, from the air concerns both Leahy and Lundberg. Rice growers often plant fields from the air.

Although he’s now an organic rice grower, agronomist Gary Simleness worked in conventional agriculture in California as a crop consultant and state licensed pest control advisor. He made the switch to organic farming largely because he sees it as a great and expanding niche market.

"California has got one of the world’s safest food supplies because there is 100 percent reporting in the use of production tools (pesticides and fertilizers) and safety testing in the marketplace," he says. "Consumer concerns about pesticide residue may not be valid from a safety standpoint, but from a perception standpoint they are real. It’s the same with GMOs. If it’s a perceived threat, then it’s a threat. Large corporate conglomerates pushing this onto farmers and then on to consumers is disastrous."

To those farmers who see benefits in growing transgenic rice, he asks, "what good is growing herbicide tolerant rice if consumers don’t want it? If you then ram such products down their throats through (government trade) policy, that just doesn’t work in the end."

Simleness successfully deals with red rice and other weeds on his 780-acre farm by each year leaving about half of the acreage fallow or by planting a cover crop to regenerate the soil and choke off weeds.

Working through the legislature

In an effort to address the issue, the California Legislature and governor passed and signed the Rice Variety Certification Act. It established an advisory board to determine whether any new rice types could impact existing varieties. If the advisers determine that potential for contamination exists, then they will set the production parameters for the rice. They also review the protocol for rice research in the state to ensure that experimental varieties are not affecting commercial production through co-mingling or cross-pollination.

Notably, the law doesn’t allow the advisory board to disallow the cultivation of any varieties that companies want to commercialize, rather only to determine the way they’ll be grown and produced.