Will Louisiana rice farmers have enough seed to plant their 2007 crop?

In a March 9 statement, the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service “confirmed the presence of trace levels of genetic material not yet approved for commercialization in Clearfield 131 (CL 131) rice seed. Based on these test results, further distribution or planting of 2005, 2006, or 2007 registered or certified CL 131 seed is prohibited. This seed is not an option for planting this crop season.”

With that, Clearfield 131 — already on USDA-imposed stop-sale status — officially joined Cheniere on the list of varieties banned for 2007. The bans come after tiny amounts of a GM LibertyLink trait were found in both varieties and export markets, particularly the European Union, were damaged.

This latest twist in the U.S. rice industry’s struggle to remove GM traits from the supply is “causing a lot of confusion, further confusion,” said Johnny Saichuk, LSU AgCenter rice specialist. “Consider the fact that CL 131 made up 25 percent of our acreage in 2006 and Cheniere made up another 25 percent. We’ve eliminated two varieties that made up half our acreage. Who believes that won’t have an effect?”

Louisiana rice farmers “are scrambling around trying to find enough rice seed to plant. I’m getting calls on reducing seeding rates, about planting seed out of bins. From what I’m hearing, many growers have set things up to cut back on some acreage. They might plant 80 percent of their farms.

“The ban is definitely causing problems, though. There’s no question about that.”

Thus far, the biggest issue is “seed availability,” said Steve Linscombe, the LSU AgCenter’s regional director for southwestern Louisiana, which includes its Rice Research Station in Crowley, La. “There just won’t be enough seed for those wanting to plant Clearfield varieties.

“The seed dealers have been forced to look for the best quality of uncertified seed that can be tested quickly. Of course, we’re already running short of time for tasks like seed cleaning.

“I’m planting rice on the station (on March 9). This is a bit early, but next week, if the weather holds, rice planting will be going strong.”

The combination of Cheniere and CL 131 made up 53 percent of G&H Seed’s stocks. The Crowley, La., company “was completely sold out of everything we produced,” said Michael Hensgens, G&H vice president and business manager. “We’re now seeking some uncertified seed sources in the public variety arena to fill some demand. We’re trying to have that tested and make sure it contains no GM traits.”

Because of red rice infestations, the ban of CL 131 has sent dominoes tumbling.

“We’ve been producing rice here for over a century and the red rice populations in a number of commercial fields are high,” said Hensgens. “The Clearfield herbicide tolerance was a real benefit for producers here because it allowed a quality crop with good yields.

“Now, farmers are trying to determine how to prepare their ground. If they’re striving to control red rice, the cultural system for conventional rice is much different. That’s because you have to control weeds with water rather than a herbicide treatment. So farmers are making management and tillage decisions — dry or flooded — depending on what seed supply they can find.”

In northeast Louisiana, some of CL 131 acres may go into soybeans. But in the southern part of the state, many farmers don’t have that option and they’re in a bind.

“Soybeans can’t be grown profitably down here,” said Saichuk. “Those in the lower parts of Jefferson Davis, Vermillion, Calcasieu, and Cameron parishes won’t be growing beans — it’s either plant rice or nothing. Or, if some of them still have some cattle, they can turn to livestock.”

The ban will upset a lot of rotational plans.

“One thing that will result from this is more water-planting and pinpoint flooding,” said Saichuk. “But without Clearfield, we’ll have to fight red rice in the old, traditional method. Our red rice situation will be aggravated.”

Late in the fall, “any soybean crop south of Interstate 10 is subject to the threat of hurricanes,” said Hensgens. “You can have a 45-bushel per acre soybean crop ready for harvest and a storm hits.”

Unfortunately, such fears aren’t mere speculation.

“It happened with Hurricane Lily, three crops ago. No one wants to repeat that, especially the financial institutions that finance a lot of the crop inputs. So there are very few funding soybean crops south of I-10. It’s a risk-management issue and that largely means rice or cattle operations around here.”

Was any CL 131 planted prior to the APHIS ban announcement?

“I know of one field of CL 131 that was planted,” says Saichuk. “I’m not sure if they’ll destroy it and start over.”

Hensgens says he’s heard of, at most, two fields planted in CL 131. “Regardless, it’s a very small amount. All I know for sure is one 3-acre field.”

Plans to bring a fresh supply of CL 131 to farmers are already in the works.

“Right now, we have seed free of GM traits,” said Linscombe, a renowned rice breeder largely responsible for the Clearfield technology. “Our headrow production for 2006 has tested negative. But we want to confirm those tests even further and validate the original results.”

If those tests come back clean, “the plan is to take a very limited amount of seed and blow it up as rapidly as possible. Even with that best-case scenario, however, there still won’t be a lot of CL 131 available in 2008.”

e-mail: dbennett@farmpress.com