It wasn’t an easy decision for the Arkansas Plant Board seed committee. But a marathon emergency session Feb. 21 ended on a 5-1 vote in favor of allowing Clearfield 131 containing trace amounts of a genetically modified trait (Bayer’s LibertyLink 62) to be planted in 2007.

Last year, another LL GM trait, 601, was found in Cheniere and resulted in the banning of the variety from Arkansas fields in 2007 and 2008 along with required testing of all other rice seed. It was during that required testing the problem with some CL 131 was discovered.

Since late last summer, there have been points of contention on how best to purge GM traits from the U.S. rice supply. Among the prickliest is how to interpret genetic lab tests (known as “35S-bar PCR”) for LL traits below the 0.01 percent threshold.

Many claim positive hits below the 0.01 level — often from smaller “sub-pools” drawn from original 30,000-seed samples — shouldn’t impact a variety’s eligibility for planting. On the other side are those who want a “zero tolerance” approach to the GM traits.

“To date, inspectors have submitted 511 samples,” said Darryl Little, Arkansas Plant Board director. “We’ve received the lab reports on 357 (and) 336 have produced no detection while 21 have had detections at some level. All the detections, to date, have been in one variety: Clearfield 131.”

Detection levels

“I’m speaking for the seed industry,” said Randy Woodard of Cache River Valley Seed. “Whether you’re a seedsman or a miller, we have the same thing in mind: making sure our rice industry stays safe. We just have different ways to interpret safe.”

By banning Cheniere, “the South lost 22 percent of its certified seed supply. This, by itself, creates a very tight seed supply in 2007.

“We agreed to test all rice seed at the 0.01 percent detection level at 95 percent confidence. Any lot receiving a ‘not detected’ in the specified detection limits will be eligible for sale.”

Woodard said close to 80 percent of the CL 131 tested has shown no detections, or achieved a “not detected” designation based on the 0.01 percent threshold.

Last fall, the USA Rice Federation held a meeting in Dallas to address the GMO issue. At that meeting, “everyone agreed that zero tolerance for GMO would probably never be attained in the South. Threshold is a level of presence at, or below, at which the presence of a contaminant is acceptable. The only way to truly eliminate the contaminant from the system is to test every seed. The question is what level is achievable? Achieving a purity of 99.99 percent corresponding with a 0.01 level of impurity for any measurable parameter is impossible.”

Arkansas’ third most popular variety in 2006, CL 131 was planted on 500,000 acres, and there remains an undeniable demand for the variety.

With certified seed stocks already in the shortest supply in years, “any loss of CL 131 will make for a very short certified seed supply,” warned Woodard. “CL 131 and Cheniere represent 39 percent of the certified rice seed acres in the South. If we were to lose CL 131, it would cut our seed supply to 36,000 acres.”

Speaking for the Arkansas Rice Growers Association, Harvey Howington also believes banning CL 131 would be a bad idea.

“I want to refer to the law of consumers: buyers that don’t want a commodity, for whatever reason, aren’t compelled to buy it,” said Howington, a rice farmer in Lepanto, Ark. “This isn’t a health issue. No one will get sick over this (rice). If there’s a buyer that doesn’t want CL 131, all he has to do is tell his growers he doesn’t want it. But there are a lot of buyers who are more than happy to take CL 131. We want them to be able to do that.

“Despite the doom and gloom you’ve heard about the amount of market we’re losing, the European market is only a very small percentage of our total market. We seem to be jumping through hoops for a market that’s already lost. We’re not going to get it back anytime soon. It won’t happen.”

Unlike Cheniere, there are no replacement varieties for CL 131, said Howington.

“Many farmers are in a continuous rice situation. What will farmers do with red rice problems or, even more troubling, rice behind Cheniere?”

Banning CL 131 will put a serious strain on an already strained rice industry. If done, Howington predicted, a dramatic rise in the price of rice seed will push farmers to bin-saved seed and a new set of potential problems.

GIPSA’s up or down

Having heard arguments against banning CL 131, Keith Glover said there were reasons to do the opposite.

Forget the testimony about how seed samples are pulled, the way they’re broken down into sub-lots, and the 0.01 percent threshold, suggested the Producers Rice Mill president. Instead, he said, the committee should focus on GIPSA’s (Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyard Administration) approach to seed testing. GIPSA, under the USDA umbrella, set up the current testing procedures and advocates a zero-tolerance approach.

“Wherever we ship rice, an ‘up or down’ test is being used,” said Glover. “The (LL trait) is either there, or not.”

“This has become an issue more over defining parameters and finding loopholes than it is of solving (the problem),” said Gary Sebree, a Stuttgart, Ark.-area rice farmer and chairman of Producers Rice Mill.

Further, said Sebree, “It isn’t just the European market (leery of U.S. rice). We could have substantial losses coming out of this.”

Robert Petter, a rice farmer from Prairie County, recently traveled to Europe as part of a U.S. rice delegation to European rice buyers.

“There’s a huge demand for regaining trade with Europe,” claimed Petter. “They’re hurting as badly as we are and are just as interested in re-establishing the market.”

Some “keep referring to the European market as being 10 percent of our business,” said Marvin Baden, Producer Rice Mill senior vice president for marketing and sales. “But what few understand are all the other countries we have to deal with.

“Let the market turn and you’ll be sitting on a shipment of rice and you won’t sell it. (The found trait) will be an out. They’ll say, ‘I’m sorry. You’ve got GMO in your rice.’ We’ll either have to renegotiate or not sell it. We can’t continue every month having this hanging over our heads. It must be cleaned up.”

“When you say, ‘They won’t buy it,’ do you mean they won’t buy it at the world market price or they’re wanting cheaper rice?” asked George Tidwell, seed committee member and chairman of the Arkansas Plant Board.

“Some countries won’t buy it at all,” replied Baden. “We’ve had three tenders with the Philippines — money the government gave them, $50 million — and they won’t take it. Price isn’t a factor.”

The testimony from Peck Kerksieck, rice farmer from Stuttgart, began with a set of insistent questions.

“Do we want to get rid of this? Does everyone here want to get rid of it or not? If we don’t, let’s go home.”

From the podium, Kerksieck waved the latest lab report on tested seed varieties. “The only variety with positives (for an LL trait) is Clearfield 131. There are zeros on everything else — zeros! Why are we going to plant something we know can hurt us?”

The bottom line?

Following lengthy testimony and discussion about testing protocols, levels of detection and statistics, Glover said, “The bottom line is if you take a representative sample of a bin of seed rice and it comes back from the lab positive for LL traits, will you allow that rice to be planted?”

Fifty-five percent of the U.S. rice crop is exported, pointed out Jay Coker, a rice farmer in central Arkansas. “We’ve got to provide a product the export market will accept. The U.S. consumer won’t eat all the rice we’re producing. What’s been the impact of this to rice farmers?”

Glover said while it’s hard to put an exact number on it, “there’s no doubt in my mind this GMO discovery has dealt a blow to the U.S. rice industry, especially here in Arkansas. Our production is down 18 percent from a year ago.

“With the big run-up in grain prices, we should have had a tremendous year price-wise. We’re the only grain commodity down on the CBOT.”

Having heard that answer, Coker said there’s no better time to address the GMO/rice issue. “We’ve got $8.30 soybeans, $5 wheat and $4.25 corn. If we’re going to address this with the least amount of negative financial impact on farmers, this is the year to do it.”

Mills

The two largest Arkansas rice mills (Riceland and Producers) expressed a difference of opinion towards accepting CL 131 rice.

“Our board adopted the policy that we’d go by the government standard,” said Glover. “That’s the GIPSA definition that in order to be negative, all sub-pools have to be negative. Any rice that comes to Producers has to meet those criteria.”

“(Positives) at any level?” asked Tidwell.

“Like GIPSA says, if there’s one positive, it’s positive,” replied Glover. “That’s the same thing with all the customers we deal with. If they do the test and there’s one positive in a sub-group, they’ll reject it. They’ll ask us to pick up the rice and take it home.”

Riceland’s position on CL 131 is “we’re trying to follow Plant Board guidelines,” said a representative of the Stuttgart-based co-op. “If a lab report comes back saying (the seed) is negative even though a sub-sample is positive, we’ll take it.”

Ray Vester then spoke on the difficulties rice farmers face.

“The EU is testing at (the 0.01) level,” said the rice farmer representative to the seed committee. If CL 131 seed with positive hits is allowed, “when this crop is brought in, (the EU) will test at an even lower level. And they’ll find the LL trait.”

Vester pointed to market prices.

“In August, the December Chicago futures price on wheat was $3.82. When it expired in December, wheat was $4.77 — a 25 percent increase in value.

“On Aug. 18, December corn futures were $2.33. When that contract expired, corn was $3.58 — a 54 percent increase.

“On Aug. 18, January soybeans were at $5.72. When that contract expired, the price was $7.06 — a 23 percent increase.

“On Aug. 18, when GMO problems hit, rice was at $10.30 for January. When that contract expired, it was at $10.10 — a 20 cent drop. This has already cost the Arkansas rice farmers a huge amount of money and opportunity.”

If the committee voted to go with no GM detection allowed in seed, “what percentage of Clearfield 131 would be left (to plant)? Fifty percent or less?” asked Randy Veach, the seed committee’s cotton farmer representative.

“Around 50 percent,” agreed Little. “That’s based on the first sampling and I’m assuming if there was re-sampling, some of the seed would (pass and be available for planting).”

“I heard (Glover) say if a farmer brings him a certificate saying there were no positive hits in any of the pools tested, (Producers) will take that rice,” said Noal Lawhon, seed committee member. “I’ve heard (Riceland) say if there is a positive test, they’ll take the rice. To me, if a guy wants to plant seed with a positive hit, he can haul it to one mill. If he wants to make sure he’s covered, he can haul it to the other mill.”

Following another round of discussion on testing protocols and statistical esoterica, Howington pled with the committee. “When we leave this room, we need to know what the rules are. Everyone from the seedsmen to the farmers needs to know what the rules are. The farmers barely understand what’s going on as it is. Tell us up or down, and that’s it.”

The farmer “needs as much information as possible,” agreed Tidwell. “I’m sympathetic to all sides but our number one priority is the farmer.”

With that, in a 5-1 vote (Vester the sole nay), the seed committee approved a motion allowing the planting of CL 131 seed with positive LL hits below the 0.01 testing level. Additionally, to help farmers know if there has been such a hit, testing documentation will follow seed.

The motion reads: “The Arkansas State Plant Board will determine eligibility for sale of rice seed in the following manner: any rice seed which is represented by a lab report from an approved testing laboratory which indicates that LibertyLink presence is ‘not detected at or above 0.01 percent’ at 95 percent confidence level (or an equivalent statement) shall be determined to be eligible for sale. Pool data shall be added to the LibertyLink testing documentation provided by the ASPB.”

The Plant Board’s Seed Division also provided the following explanation for pool data: “Pool data refers to the sub-samples when the laboratories test the 30,000 seed required in the testing method. For example, some laboratories test three sub-samples of 10,000 seed; some test four sub-samples of 7,500 seed; some test six sub-samples of 5,000 seed. The information from each pool, whether detected or non-detected, will be made available to the purchaser of the seed. According to the interpretation in the above motion, samples tested with less than half the pool samples testing positive will be eligible for sale.”

Editor’s note: Sources say Riceland will soon clarify its position on CL 131. And more changes may be in store for CL 131 and the Arkansas rice industry. An emergency meeting of the Arkansas Plant Board has been called for March 1 to discuss the issue further.

e-mail: dbennett@farmpress.com