As planting season rapidly approaches, the U.S. rice industry has another issue to deal with in its attempts to flush unwanted GM traits from the rice supply. Some positive hits for a LibertyLink trait have surfaced in lab tests on Clearfield 131.

The variety was responsible for 375,000 acres of the state's rice crop in 2006.

Before the latest findings, Cheniere was the only variety known to harbor such a trait.

Last Dec. 28, the Arkansas Plant Board banned Cheniere from being planted in Arkansas in 2007 and 2008. At the same time, the board passed regulations calling for all seed stocks in the state to be tested for LibertyLink (LL) traits at a 0.01 percent level. It was during the course of those tests the problem with Clearfield 131 (CL131) was discovered.

The latest lab results alone won't dictate new regulatory action. Arkansas farmers remain free to plant CL131 seed that has tested clean.

Several overseeing the cleanup say the CL131 lab results raise more questions than they answer. Most are calling for more time to gather and evaluate additional data.

With retesting, “I suspect you'd get at least 75 percent to 80 percent of (CL131) to pass a test showing it isn't detected at, or above, 0.01 percent — or, possibly, even higher than that,” says Darryl Little, director of the Plant Board. “The big thing is the more samples and data we get, the better we'll understand it and the better people will be able to make decisions.”

Those at HorizonAg, the Memphis-based company that markets Clearfield varieties, are not sure why CL131 is testing positive in certified seed.

“Our foundation lots ultimately used to supply the market are testing clean,” says Randy Ouzts, HorizonAg general manager. “We don't know why some 131 is testing positive. What I do know is the level is at least one decimal point — perhaps two — outside Cheniere's (contamination) level. In cold reality, it's (very difficult) when anyone tries to regulate at testing levels of thousands, or hundreds of thousands, of percentages.”

Little agrees the testing can be extremely sensitive and difficult to gauge. Some 30 percent of the time the test can even pick out a 0.0013 level of contamination — the equivalent of one seed in 80,000.

Ouzts, who had previously cautioned against adopting the 0.01 testing level, insists his company found out about the positive CL131 results only in the last several weeks. Meanwhile, other Clearfield varieties have proven clean of LL traits.

“The CL171 and CL161 are completely, definitely clean,” says Ouzts. “I don't have the CL151 tests back yet. Time is a real issue here, but we're at the mercy of the seed lab. And when you do get a result, if it's unfavorable, you have to retest. That takes more time.”

All involved stress the need for more information before drawing definite conclusions. Lab tests are showing positives “in about 40 to 50 percent of the 131 lots,” says Little. “And we aren't sure what it is — LL601, LL62 (which has been deregulated by USDA), or something else.”

As of Jan. 29, Arkansas Plant Board field staff had submitted 77 CL131 seed lots to labs. Results on 43 of the lots had been returned with 23 showing the presence of an LL trait.

“That may sound worse than it is,” says Little. “Apparently, we're bumping the bottom limits of this test and its ability to pick something up.

“A lot of the ones we're seeing detections on you could … surmise the level is well below 0.01 percent.”

How might the mills react to the latest news on CL131?

“This is why we felt it was so important to test all the varieties (other than Cheniere) before rice is planted in 2007,” says Keith Glover, president and CEO of Producers Rice Mill in Stuttgart, Ark.

“Some people in the industry believed that banning Cheniere would take care of the problem. We were adamant that further testing was needed, though, because of the chance of commingling. There could be a seed lot out there with some GE rice in it … We need to find out if this is a result of accidental commingling or if, somehow, the GE trait got mixed up in foundation seed of 131 or something else. It raises a lot of questions that need to be answered.”

Glover says he has yet to hear from any foreign customers worried about the CL131 news.

In recent weeks Glover tamped down many farmer concerns when he said the mill would take rice as long as it was accompanied by paperwork proving the seed used to grow the crop had been tested for GM traits. Has anything changed with the latest CL131 findings?

“It's really hard to say we're going to do A, B and C. Until we get more facts, it would be foolish for me to make definite statements. As of today, our position and policy are the same. But if we get some answers in the next day or weeks that tell us something different about CL131, we might have to adjust accordingly.

“This whole thing has been quite a journey. You get to a point where you think you've got all the knowledge and facts and then a new fact surfaces that has to be dealt with.”

Ray Vester says farmers he's spoken with remain in favor of the clean-up plan. “They know how serious the problem is,” says the Stuttgart, Ark.-area rice farmer and Plant Board rice representative. “One of the biggest helps was that (mills) agreed to take rice with proper certification. That calmed things down.

“Farmers know this could ruin the entire rice industry. It could absolutely destroy it.

“Some say, ‘It's just Europe complaining. Give up on them.’ No, it isn't just Europe!

“Just wait, countries will come to us and say, ‘We need your rice but it is tainted and we don't really want it. You're going to have to lower the price.’

“That's how this will work. These countries may not ban our rice, but they'll demand sacrifice from us. Even if markets aren't cut, they'll still resist prices. You know, ‘we’ll take your rice at half price.' Well, without a decent price for our crops, farmers will have nothing. This has to be cleaned up properly and quickly.”