Trying to rid the state’s rice supply of trace amounts of a GM trait, the Arkansas Plant Board passed new regulations on Dec. 28, its last meeting of 2006. Although concerns remain, testimony during the meeting did help smooth several prickly points of contention between rice industry segments.

The new regulations (see http://deltafarmpress.com
/news/0761229-gm-rice/
) came after several hours of enlightening, unheated debate — most during the seed committee meeting just prior to the full Plant Board gathering. Several of the big issues broached included potential farmer liability, the mills’ approach to the problem and farm-saved seed.

Testify

The Arkansas Farm Bureau opposes “restrictions on the ability of farmers to test, clean and plant any of their own seed,” said Joe Christian, an Arkansas rice farmer speaking on behalf of the Arkansas Farm Bureau.

Farm Bureau supports the clean-up plan adopted by the USA Rice Federation (USARF) “that would institute mandatory testing of all rice seed planted in Arkansas in 2007. That includes farm-saved seed.

“We understand this is a necessary step in assuring our foreign customers our rice industry is making a good faith effort to rid our rice of the undesirable GE LibertyLink trait. We oppose any ban that (calls) for banning of farm-saved seed with the exception of the already-banned Cheniere.”

Testing farm-saved seed using the same protocols required in testing certified seed “is significant (enough) to ensure the quality and purity of the seed to mills, marketers and other foreign customers. We further believe that any (additional) restriction on farm-saved seed puts an undue burden on rice producers.”

Tommy Hoskin, who farms rice and soybeans near Stuttgart, Ark., also serves as chairman of the Riceland Food board. Riceland is a farmer-owned co-op with 9,000 members it serves “by receiving, drying, storing and processing the grain our members produce. (Riceland also) markets those products across the United States and around the world.”

Riceland, said Hoskin, understands “all too well the costs associated with the discovery of trace amounts of genetically engineered rice in the 2005-06 crop. These costs include transportation and reprocessing costs when Riceland products are returned by export customers. They include costs incurred by our U.S. food ingredient customers when their products in Asia are destroyed. Then there are the costs of lab tests and legal defenses at home and abroad.”

To help remove resistance to U.S. rice in foreign markets, “it’s critically important to take bold steps that represent our best effort to eliminate the problem from our commercial production.”

Hoskin said the Plant Board’s earlier decision to ban Cheniere — so far the only rice variety found to harbor the LibertyLink trait — from state fields in 2007 was the correct action.

“But we now encourage you to recommend the Plant Board adopt the other industry recommendations, including the testing of all rice seed for the LL trait at the 0.01 level, providing documentation of lab reports showing no detection of traits in the rice seed.”

Liability and markets

Farmer liability was also discussed. “We … want to ensure the farmer isn’t held liable or there isn’t a discount if he does what’s right and follows (any adopted regulations),” said John Alter, a rice farmer from DeWitt, Ark., and president of the Arkansas Rice Growers Association.

Alter, referencing a list of marketing information, pointed to “a bit of misinformation being passed around on the true impact of this. Our exports in Mexico and Central America are on track to surpass last year. Basically, paring it down, there’s no problem other than the European Union (EU).

“We’re talking about 6 percent, 7 percent, 8 percent — depending on whose numbers you use — of the market as far as an impact. We hope this committee considers that versus the potential economic impact it might have on farmers, who will ultimately pay for the test. Any liability … that might fall back on the seed grower, the seed dealer or the producer needs to be weighed against what the true economic impact is.”

U.S. rice customers in Central America want the issue dealt with quickly and quietly, said Alter. “They’re sending strong signals to us now: ‘Just shut up about this.’ It’s not a problem but the more we continue with it, the more the perception (grows) that there is.”

Keith Glover, president of Producers Rice Mill, presented much gloomier marketing numbers. As of early December, “overall U.S. export sales are down 409,000 metric tons, or down 19 percent.

“U.S. long-grain milled rice export sales are down 218,000 metric tons, or down 27 percent. U.S. brown rice export sales are down 103,000 metric tons, or down 72 percent. Overall, U.S. mills are running 16 million hundredweight below a year ago, or down 23 percent.”

Last year, “the European market imported 300,000 metric tons of U.S. rice,” said Glover, who oversees the 2,500 member farmer-owned cooperative in Stuttgart, Ark. “That market is gone for this year and that will hurt.”

Also last year, “Cuba — which has been a big buyer of U.S. rice in recent years — bought 186,000 metric tons. Today, for this marketing year, they’ve bought zero, not a ton from the United States.”

Currently, Russia has a ban on all U.S. rice and the Philippines have had two tenders of PL480, worth approximately for $20 million. Last fall, the island nation cancelled twice.

Meanwhile, “Canada and many of the Middle Eastern countries that the U.S. ships to — Iraq and Saudi Arabia — now require a certificate that shows (U.S. rice shipments) have tested negative for LL (traits). That means if I load a barge destined for the Middle East and the lab result comes back positive, I can’t ship that barge. I have to unload it (and take the rice) somewhere else. This has had a devastating impact on our demand.”

Glover said Alter’s marketing numbers for South American and Central American were correct. “We’re grateful and thankful for that. In fact, Mexico’s demand is running ahead of last year. That’s a good thing and has helped us.”

But he claimed a Mexican anti-GMO movement has sprung up.

“So far, our industry has been able to fend off any effort to affect our exports into Mexico. But, again, there are (Mexicans) actively at work trying to derail … that market.”

Glover, while pointing out nothing is foolproof, advocated for the 0.01 testing level. “When you think about the controls and protocols in place with foundation seed — along with the controls used when experimenting with the (GM) rice — you’d think controls would be tight. But despite all those controls, (the current imbroglio) happened. In the grain business, we know there’s always a possibility grain will be commingled.”

Harvey Howington, a rice farmer from Poinsett County, Ark., was dubious of testing only certain points of the rice seed chain. “If this committee decides we do need to test the seed, then I think the tests need to be done all the way down the line.

“The most likely contamination (source) for the 2007 crop will come from the storage facilities. … That being the case, I think we need a plan to clean up those storage facilities. If the buyers want a certificate that we’ve got clean seed, I think the farmers should have a certificate (showing our rice) is going into a clean storage facility.”

Farm-saved?

Clean-up of the current problem will be difficult. That point was driven home when Wendell Stratton, owner of Stratton Seed in Stuttgart, Ark., told the seed committee “the source of this trait in Cheniere probably started with one seed. (Perhaps) it was hung up in a combine, or in a dryer in Puerto Rico. At this stage, we don’t know.

“But it’s amazing to me that one foreign seed could create all the problems in the industry that it has.”

While the seed industry acknowledges farm-saved seed “is a legitimate part of the rice seed industry,” Stratton said time constraints call for aggressive actions.

The only way for the industry to assure “there’ll be no (LL) trait in the market (after 2007) is to plant certified seed from a source that’s been traced all the way back to breeder seed.”

While Stratton agrees farmers should have the ability to plant seed they’ve saved, “there are a lot of things in this discussion that we should have (and don’t). Speaking for our company … and from our years of experience of dealing with farm-stored seed, the only way to do this … is for this committee to only allow certified seed channels as seed sources for rice planting this year.”

Stratton, who admitted his views were unlikely to be popular, cautioned if farm-saved seed is allowed, the LL trait currently plaguing the industry “won’t (be purged) from the system. As a seed company, we’ve purchased grower-produced seed stored in farm bins. It has been planted from registered seed. It has been walked by Plant Board (employees). It has gone through all the processes and been brought to our facilities to clean.

“(On) numerous occasions, the seed didn’t make certified grade due to mixture or weed/seed content or red rice content. So we have knowledge and history from working with seed growers.”

Seed committee

Shortly after testimony ended, millers in attendance were again asked whether farmers will be released from liability if they bring mills a GM-tainted rice crop. If farmers “abide by the plan and (the Plant Board) regulates it, as far as we’re concerned, in a good faith effort, they won’t have any liability,” said Glover.

“We concur with Keith’s remarks,” said Terry Richardson of Riceland.

George Tidwell, chairman of the full Plant Board, asked if there are enough inspectors to pull the seed samples.

“We’ve notified our inspectors in the western part of the state to have their suitcases packed,” said Darryl Little, Plant Board director. “It’ll be a burden but I believe we can (do it). We’re at these facilities at this time of year on a routine basis anyway. We’re sampling the same seed. In many cases, it’ll be a matter of drawing an additional sample.”

However, farm-saved seed “is an additional burden,” added Little.

Allowing farm-saved seed to be planted in 2007 “opens a can of worms that, to me, we don’t need to (open),” said Noal Lawhon, Plant Board member.

Tidwell asked about any assurances “that if we don’t allow the farmers to plant their (saved) seed we’ll clean this up (quickly) … I see the merits (of banning farm-saved seed). But the thing is, historically the Plant Board has allowed farmers to save their own seed.”

“And historically the seed dealers haven’t been asked to … test all their seed,” countered Lawhon.

Randy Veach, Plant Board member, said there are “probably farmers out there who have never raised an ounce of Cheniere. Probably some seed dealers have never had any in the plant … They’ve got a bin full of Wells that could be some of the best … rice we have. I hate to see us limit the market by taking it out of (production).”

While allowing properly handled and tested farm-saved seed to be planted in 2007, the seed committee did call for scrutiny of farms’ rice-planting history.

“All we’re trying to do is make sure this thing goes no further,” said Otis Howe, Plant Board member. “If (in the history) there’s something (Plant Board employees) don’t like, they can say, ‘No, you don’t need to keep that.’”

Little said such a rule would make the situation “more comfortable.”

“You’d be asking for the same information you do when seed is in the certification (system),” suggested Mark Waldrip, seed committee chairman.

A motion to require a farm’s rice-planting history then passed the seed committee unanimously. Shortly thereafter, the full Plant Board passed the new regulations.

The Plant Board is expected to revisit the GM rice regulations at its next meeting in March.

e-mail: dbennett@farmpress.com