As president of the Arkansas Rice Growers Association, John Alter has had a busy couple of weeks. The Aug. 18 USDA announcement that tiny amounts of a Bayer genetically modified organism had been found in the U.S. rice supply sent rice prices down. Soon after, Alter’s phone began ringing and it hasn’t stopped since.

“The calls have flooded in. Mostly, (fellow farmers) are just trolling for information,” says the Dewitt, Ark., producer whose own rice crop is nearing harvest. “Everyone is scrambling to find out something — anything

— about this. They’re angry and confused and no one knows what to do. For some reason, there’s a lot of mystery surrounding this.”

Although Delta Farm Press has been unable to confirm it, ARGA has reported Cocodrie and Cheniere are varieties harboring Bayer’s LibertyLink trait. (Editor’s note: to view that information, see www.arkansasricegrowers.com/archive_news.htm.)

On Aug. 29, Alter — who also sits on the Arkansas Rice Research and Promotion Board — spoke about the current swirl of farmer worries, lawsuits, Bayer’s response and proposed legislation. Among his comments:

Anything new going on?

“First thing: regardless of how this mess happened, this (LibertyLink) protein is a food-grade product. It’s safe and hasn’t caused an absolute tragedy like what would happen if pharma-rice outcrossed with the commercial crop.

“As for what’s new, it’s my understanding (industry leaders)… may try to use farmers’ money like they did in 2000-2001 in the Mexican dumping case. To remind everyone, that’s when approximately $700,000 of farmers’ money was spent defending a single rice company. Those funds were spent for so-called ‘market protection.’

“I hope they’re not planning to go down the same road. No more money brought to the table by farmers needs to be spent for such things… Anyone thinking along those lines should know we’re ahead of them this time, not behind…

“Also, comments have been made that this problem is widespread and throughout rice-producing areas. What science has been used (to make such conclusions)? I’m not disputing that may be the case. But if the research tests have been done, let us know what they were and when they occurred.”

What about the information released by your organization stating that Cocodrie and Cheniere hold (the offending GMO traces)? How solid is that information?

“Respected researchers have told us they believe (the problem) is… in those two varieties. We have no way of knowing that (independently)... If a farmer (has those varieties), we were told it would be a good idea to try and keep them separate.

“If true, no one knows the end result of this information price-wise. Will there be premiums and/or discounts? One would imagine there would be, in light of the EU stance on this…”

Can you characterize these researchers further?

“I’ve spoken with (them) off the record, so I have to be careful. But this comes from several (sources)… There’s no way to (independently) confirm that without adequate testing.

“However, I understand the various research universities in the six rice-producing states have been asked to submit samples of their seed stock for testing. I don’t know how far along that process is.”

On common questions in the farming community…

“Farmers continue to wonder why it took so long for the information to reach the (field). As an organization, we’re standing back and waiting for the investigations to prove what they will.

“However, we hope any investigation looks at not only how this happened but if anyone — any company, or companies — profited from having knowledge farmers (weren’t provided)…

“Farmers need a voice — someone who speaks for them alone. It would be great if all rice industry segments were holding hands and skipping down the path together. But it’s foolish to think that’s always the case.

“If this LibertyLink situation isn’t evidence of that, then there ain’t a cow in Texas.”

Is ARGA in contact with the USDA and APHIS?

“Yes. But let’s put this in perspective.

“APHIS is the department within the USDA responsible for monitoring test plots and outdoor development, growing and transportation of GMOs. I have a copy of a GAO audit (of APHIS) from last year that wasn’t very flattering about APHIS’ ability to monitor (GMOs).

“It’s scary to read the audit and… understand the lack of real oversight in place. We all assume someone is watching (GMO research) and protecting us. But this audit says APHIS doesn’t have sufficient resources to do so.”

On ARGA and its umbrella organization (US Rice Producers Association) being involved in recent Missouri and Arkansas GMO legislation…

“This (LibertyLink) situation doesn’t surprise me at all.

“It will be two years in January that the ARGA was the sole organization that introduced legislation to regulate the transportation, outdoor growth of GMO rices. We told the Arkansas legislature then that this wasn’t a matter of ‘if’ but ‘when.’

“We weren’t using scare tactics. But we know the practicality of growing any (GMO rice) outdoors in close proximity to a valuable, commercial rice crop is a serious danger. And now we’ve seen a fraction of what that danger can be.

“Thank God this GMO is a food-grade grain. It’s safe (for consumption) and I believe the market with calm down. Of course, that’s cold comfort. We can measure how far the market has fallen, but we can’t measure the upside potential that’s been lost. Who knows how much we really lost?

“But I know this: once again, the real loser is the farmer. No one in the rice business has lost any money except the farmer.

“The (GMO-related) bill that finally passed the Arkansas legislature… hasn’t been implemented. There have been no regulations written, no board appointed to oversee it.

“Right now, we’re hardly better off than we were when the bill was passed almost two years ago.”

“Let me be clear: the bill we introduced during the last Arkansas legislative session would not have prevented this LibertyLink event. There’s no doubt about that. This LibertyLink situation was in the works well before that.

“The thing is, we don’t know what’s in the hopper right now. We don’t know what’s growing right now that’s a risk to our crops next year and in coming years.

“Regardless, we all know Joe Farmer is the one who will really pay. That’s why he needs be at any table when policy decisions (regarding GM rice) are made.”

What about the lawsuits being filed? Is your organization considering a suit?

“ARGA hasn’t entertained any legal action. It was our hope Bayer, by being a good corporate citizen, would short out the need for (such) suits.

“There have been plenty of rumblings of lawsuits for days. The fact that they’ve been filed isn’t a surprise. And I expect a bunch more to be filed.

“I’ve been contacted by lawyers wanting to file. I’ve told them, ‘At this time, I have no interest and neither does ARGA.’

“ARGA is in every rice-growing county in Arkansas. We have a good representation of rice growers and our membership continues to increase. We’re gaining new members every day — a lot through our newsletter. We’ve certainly seen an up-tick in memberships since this broke.

“We’re here to protect farmers’ interests in issues just like this. I expect we’ll be very involved in how our check-off money is spent as it relates to this situation.

“Most farmers are angry because this hit them directly in the pocketbook. In the past… most farmers just considered check-off money to be an automatic — like walking into Wal-Mart and paying a tax for goods. You just pay it and don’t question where it goes.

“Most didn’t know they really can control those funds. It’s very important when your money has something to do with influence over policy and laws.”

Anything else?

“If farmers will be a little patient, it’s our hope we’ll all recover… Things have a way of working out. We hope they will and that the market recovers.

“The financial strain on most farmers today is incredible. Hopefully, the market will offer us enough to reduce the pressure.”

e-mail: dbennett@farmpress.com