On March 14, the USA Rice Federation (USARF) released a statement saying shipments from “several U.S. exporters are being held at the border by Mexican officials who are requiring a GMO-free certificate as a condition of entry into Mexico. This trade disruption was reported to the USARF this morning.

“Mexico is the largest single export destination for U.S. rice,” the statement said, “and in 2006 that trade was valued at a record $205 million on sales of 805,500 metric tons. With today’s reported action by Mexico, 63 percent of the value of U.S. rice exports has been affected by the presence of the Bayer CropScience LL601 genetically engineered trait in the U.S. long-grain supply.”

On Thursday, March 15, leaders in the rice industry were still piecing together the story behind the Mexican action.

“One thing we do know is that trucks stopped at the border were eventually let through,” says Greg Yielding, executive director of the Arkansas Rice Growers Association. “From what we understand, the Mexicans will allow trade to continue with an eye towards working out rules for testing in the future.

“It isn’t like trade has stopped cold. That was the original fear and it stirred up some folks, but it was unfounded.”

While still gathering facts, the USARF is on top of the situation, says Bob Cummings, the federation’s vice president for international trade policy.

“We’re still coming to an understanding of what’s going on in Mexico and have been in a lot of contact with USDA and (contacts) in Mexico City. We’re receiving reports from the U.S. government as well as some in the trade that the implementation of the order, or requirement, for a GM-free certificate may be delayed. There is evidence that some shipments being held at border crossings are now entering Mexico.”

Initial signs “are hopeful that trade will resume while the U.S. and Mexican governments figure out how to go forward.”

Asked about reports that Greenpeace was making inroads into Mexico with GM rice fears, Cummings said the organization “has been agitating on this issue for some time. However, they were also agitating in the fall of 2006 and nothing occurred. They began a renewed (round) of press releases and making noise in Mexico in January. But we certainly had no expectation this type of action would come out of the Mexican government.”

A “good portion” of the reason behind Mexico’s actions is due to Greenpeace, says Dwight Roberts, president of the US Rice Producers Association.

“They’ve been taking out ads in the Mexican media. Early on, there was rice rejected in Europe that was brought back to Mexico. That offended some people in Mexico and Greenpeace has played on that. They’re working that angle with a lot of energy.

“There were reports (on March 14) that Mexico will require a certificate showing rice is free of GMO – no mention of a tolerance level. That’s what was so disturbing and it’s the next big thing to watch.”

However, Roberts says contacts in the Mexican rice industry say the country “will go with a tolerance level, much like we have with Canada. If true, we can live with that and things will be okay. We believe Mexico will continue to be our number one market. If Mexico goes zero-tolerance, though, then we’re in big trouble.”

How did the USARF find out about the halted shipments?

“We found out in the typical way we find out about these trade disruptions – particularly when dealing with the Mexican and Central American markets,” says Cummings. “A U.S. shipper suddenly finds his shipment delayed at the border. His customer in Mexico can’t get it so he contacts us. We then begin an investigation and work to help free that shipment.”

While Cummings wasn’t at liberty to name the U.S. shippers he did say four were affected.

“It’s important to realize the impact on the whole rice industry of the presence of genetic events in U.S. rice,” says Cummings. “We began on this road in late August. Now, add Mexico to the list of those export markets affected by this issue and that means 63 percent of our exports value has been impacted. That ranges from losing markets, trade disruptions, having to test and incur extra costs for markets like Canada and Iraq. This GE issue in U.S. rice continues to have an impact on our growers and marketers.”

The situation “needs to be resolved quickly,” says Roberts. “We will continue to have bumps in the road in dealing with the GM traits. But, in the long run, I’m convinced these issues will be resolved and the consumer will be put at ease.”

email: dbennett@farmpress.com