In a continuing effort to purge GM traits from the rice industry, the Arkansas State Plant Board has banned the rice variety Clearfield 131. The measure passed on a 6-5 vote at a March 2 emergency meeting and came after lengthy board deliberation and often emotional testimony from farmers, seedsmen and millers.

Bred to harness a natural mutation to tolerate the Newpath herbicide, Clearfield varieties have provided growers new tools to fight yield-sapping red rice. Many farmers facing red rice infestations consider the Clearfield technology a godsend and have set up farms around it.

At this late date — with rice planting already under way in Louisiana and only several weeks from beginning in southern Arkansas — such Clearfield-heavy operations must scramble for cropping options. And with Cheniere already sidelined this growing season, those options are rapidly narrowing.

In 2006, Cheniere and CL 131 accounted for 26 percent of Arkansas’ rice acreage.

The Arkansas Plant Board’s latest action stems from the furor that began last August when the USDA announced a GM trait, Bayer’s LibertyLink (LL) 601, had been discovered in the U.S. rice supply. The trait — at levels around six grains per 10,000 — was later linked to the very popular Cheniere variety.

Despite U.S. government insistence that the LL traits are safe, some foreign markets, most notably the European Union, balked at taking U.S. rice. The U.S. rice industry has since worked to assure trading partners and to clean up the seed supply.

As part of that effort, in late December 2006, the Arkansas Plant Board banned Cheniere for the 2007 and 2008 growing seasons and mandated genetic testing of all seed stocks. It was during those tests that the GM problem with CL 131 (at even lower levels than in Cheniere) emerged.

New information

With that background, on Feb. 21, the Arkansas Plant Board’s seed committee recommended the full board adopt a measure allowing the planting of “clean” CL 131 seed (seed without lab detection for a LibertyLink trait, or seed with positive detections at, or below, a very low threshold).

The seed committee’s recommendation was also made with the understanding that one of Arkansas’ top two rice co-ops would take “clean” CL 131 from farmers, something that turned out not to be the case.

Just as significant, at the March 2 meeting, Darryl Little, Plant Board director, informed the board that additional testing data had been received.

“This has been a very difficult issue for everyone involved,” said Little. “And it has evolved. I know I’ve heard a lot of comments about it being late in the game. But we’re gathering information on a daily basis that can impact the market and marketability of our rice crop and can impact a grower if he plants a variety that will be adversely impacted in the marketplace.

“The (Arkansas) legislature charged this agency with protecting the rice industry from characteristics that can be in that rice that will adversely affect it on the world market.”

The state’s legal definition of characteristics of commercial impact is: “Characteristics that may adversely affect the marketability of rice in the event of commingling with any other rice and includes, but is not limited to those characteristics: (A) that cannot be identified without the aid of specialized equipment or testing; (B) that create a significant impact in their removal from commingled rice; and (C) whose removal from commingled rice is not feasible.”

“This is the exactly the situation we’re dealing with in Cheniere,” said Little. “As sampling data began coming in relative to CL 131, we were looking at data on a lot-by-lot basis. That all changed last week, a few hours before the seed committee met.”

It changed because of an APHIS (USDA’s Animal Plant Health Inspection Service) announcement indicating LLRice 62, a trait different than that found in Cheniere, had been detected in CL 131 head-row seed.

“That essentially means the variety contains LL traits,” said Little.

Head-row

In earlier testimony, Chuck Wilson, Arkansas Extension rice specialist, explained the significance of head-row rice and the APHIS discovery.

“Head-row seed is an early increase in the seed generation process,” said Wilson. “With head-row seed, specific, individual heads are selected and planted in rows. One panicle plants one row. Selections are then made from those rows that conform to the specifications of a particular variety.”

Head-row seed is four generations prior to the production of certified seed.

“Another issue I’ve been asked to talk about is the potential ramifications of finding LL rice in that early generation. If you assume, because it’s Clearfield rice, that it was a simple, mechanical mixture, each one of those generations of seed increase has had two applications of Newpath. You’re talking about four generations of Newpath application and we’re still finding LL 62 in the current seed supply.

“Thus, it seems logical to assume that we’re now dealing with a certain percentage of Clearfield rice that has both the Clearfield gene and the LL gene.”

More questions

Little also informed the board of a letter from BASF sent to him and Cindy Smith, deputy administrator for USDA’s Biotechnology Regulatory Services. In the letter, BASF references “a registered-grade lot of CL 131 that tested positive in three of four pools with the 35S-bar test. The 35S-bar test is the broad screening tool used to detect LL traits.

“So the laboratory had three of four positive pools in the 35S-bar test and went back to try to identify specifically which LL trait was in the sample. They tested it for LLRice 62 — which had already been determined to be in CL 131 — and it wasn’t LL 62. They checked it for LL 601 and it wasn’t LL 601.”

Shortly before the Plant Board met, Little received an e-mail from HorizonAg, the Memphis-based company responsible for Clearfield varieties. The e-mail reported on further testing “done on the same sample. The laboratory determined the LL trait in the Clearfield sample isn’t LL 06.”

The three LL traits being ruled out is significant, Little explained, because, “there are only three LL events that have been deregulated: LL 06, LL 62 and, just last fall as the result of the detection in Cheniere, LL 601. So, apparently, whatever is in this sample isn’t any of these deregulated events and we don’t know what it is. That could be an additional problem with the marketability if and when it’s identified.”

Searching for answers

Early in deliberations and with a unanimous vote, the board adopted the following motion: “The ASPB shall determine eligibility for planting of rice seed for the 2007 planting season in the following manner: All laboratory reports shall be evaluated using GIPSA standards to determine eligibility for planting.”

For those needing clarification, said board member Mark Waldrip, “what this means is … if there’s any detection, at any level, in any sub-pool, then the sample is determined to be above 0.01 percent and to be ineligible for planting. Basically, it amounts to zero-tolerance.”

Little asked for more “guidance related to whether this information related to CL 131 that’s just come out in the last few days causes that variety to fall under the ban we placed on Cheniere.”

With a vote on banning CL 131 looming, Waldrip explained why he was against it. “Tough decisions” will be required of “farmers. For my part, I don’t want to make the decision for that farmer. I want him to make that decision, for him to have the ability to buy rice seed that has tested, to the best of our ability, zero. Because we’re essentially not talking about lower than 0.01 percent now; we’re talking about ‘zero.’”

Waldrip also pointed out even lab-cleared CL 131, if allowed, would likely be planted on only the worst red rice fields. “With all the publicity surrounding this, if a guy doesn’t have to absolutely have Clearfield, he won’t plant it. I wouldn’t.”

While admitting the hardships a CL 131 ban would bring to many, board member Ray Vester warned that “next year, if this turns around and commodity prices are lower, this GMO will create a two-class system of seed in the selling of rice. It won’t make one pay a premium, it’ll make one be at a discount below the other. Then, we’ll have people buying that discount and pushing our whole market down and we’ll be selling rice at loan, or below.”

After more debate, the board voted on the motion that “we direct staff, from this point, to consider CL 131 as a variety with LL (traits).”

The final vote was 6-5 in favor of adoption, with board chairman George Tidwell forced to break the tie.

Editor’s note: Farmers’ and millers’ testimony before the Arkansas Plant Board will be contained in coming stories in Delta Farm Press and at http://www.deltafarmpress.com. For more information on the Feb. 21 seed committee meeting see: http://deltafarmpress.com/news/070301-cl131-session/#.

e-mail: dbennett@farmpress.com