Richard Bell is uniquely qualified to comment on the recent revelation that trace amounts of a GMO have been found in the U.S. rice supply.

Having first worked at the USDA during the Ford administration, Bell made a move to Stuttgart, Ark.-based Riceland Foods in 1977. After running the 9,000-member co-op (which handles a third of U.S. rice crop) since 1981, Bell agreed to lead the Arkansas Department of Agriculture in 2005. From his new position, Bell helps oversee the largest rice crop in the nation.

In a lengthy interview with Delta Farm Press on Aug. 26, Bell had plenty to say about the current market situation, EU intransigence, the coming harvest and USDA’s role in the matter. Among his comments:

Bringing things up-to-date…

“I talked to the senior marketing person at Riceland late yesterday afternoon (Aug. 25) for a summation. I needed it because Benny Petrus, the speaker for the Arkansas House of Representatives beginning next January, wants to keep posted.

“The domestic market seems to have settled down and business is being done. I’m not aware of any objections from Mexico, Haiti or Cuba — large export markets for our long-grain rice. Nor am I aware of (any problems) from the Central American region.

“This is almost down to a European concern. But Europe is a sizable export market for the United States… The European situation looks difficult…

“I do know a senior official of one of the Spanish companies that recently bought U.S. rice mills has traveled to Brussels to meet with senior (EU) officials. That could be helpful.

“There are also questions from the Middle East, as well. Iraq actually has a zero tolerance (for GM rice). Saudi Arabia normally requires a dialogue before issues get resolved. Of course, those are large export markets for U.S. rice.”

A timeline from Bell’s perspective…

“Last weekend (immediately after the USDA announcement) was the worst…

“I was with the Arkansas Forestry Commission working on their budget for the biennium. When I came back to my office, my administrative assistant said (USDA in) Washington, D.C., had called. They said Bruce Knight, the undersecretary for marketing and regulatory affairs, would call me at 2:05. And he did. That was to brief me before (USDA Secretary Mike Johann’s) press conference.

“We then had a joint teleconference with my counterparts in rice-growing states in the South. I had two questions. First, where is it in the South? That was never answered.

“Second, why are you deregulating it? They’re in the process of deregulating it which makes it eligible for commercialization. I guess the thinking is that will designate it safe for consumption. But I thought that was odd.

“And if you’ll look at the press releases, there are two other Liberty Link varieties that have been deregulated but not commercialized. And by ‘commercialized’ we mean going into trade. That hasn’t happened because the rice industry objected to it.

“Back in the 2005 session of the Arkansas legislature, there was an act passed called the Arkansas Rice Certification Act. It’s designed to prevent what happened (here). Of course, we didn’t envision (contamination) happening in this sequence. We thought there’d be a chance to review it before, all at once, it (landed in our laps).

“Also… there was an off-the-wall proposal from Washington. They asked what we thought about removing limits on rice trading in Chicago on Monday morning.

“My answer to that was, ‘Well, that’s why we have the rules in place. We don’t want that to happen.’

“The rule is if the market is down the limit two days in a row, you extend the limits. If you go down the same for another couple of days, further steps are taken. But you don’t take the bottom out of it. I’m glad they didn’t do that.

“We lost about $1 per hundredweight (the first week after the announcement). I do have a feeling that the Chicago Board of Trade has stabilized. When you check open interest and who’s trading and so forth, it appears that way. “But our farmers had their sights set on $10 per hundredweight. That would provide the $4.50 per bushel which is needed to cover costs. And we were near there before falling back.”

Has anything shaken out that might give rice farmers hope in terms of legislation?

“That stage hasn’t been reached yet. That will probably need to come from the congressional side.

“The question I hear most is, ‘When will this end?’ I believe as we go through the next several weeks, the market loss will be regained. Rice supplies are tight.

“The other problem is not knowing what variety (the Liberty Link trait) is in. I’ve told farmers that if they have storage space to try and keep varieties separated. But everyone knows that by next week, we’ll be in harvest in a big way. And as we don’t have enough storage space, through necessity, varieties will be mixed.”

How did this become so prevalent?

“Almost all the tests are showing up positive. It hasn’t shown up in some of the rough rice. But I’m not aware of any milled rice it hasn’t shown up in. That means the problem may be more than one variety. Or, perhaps, it’s a result of variety mixing in storage…

“It’s in at least one variety and maybe more. It’s up to the USDA to determine which ones.

“There’s a smaller crop this year. But there’s every indication it’ll come out of the field very quickly and there will still be a storage crunch.”

Is this the genesis of dealing with the rice crop in a different way? You mentioned the state legislature is already concerned about this. Do you see potential legislation coming down the pipe to address GM rice or storage issues or testing?

“On Wednesday, I’ve been called before the joint agriculture committees in the Arkansas legislature to report on this. All the items you mentioned will have to be considered. I don’t see anything being done until the 2007 session, which begins in January.

“It seems to me if the Europeans will demand assurances of this nature — something no one else requires — rice for them might be grown separately with a paper-trail. Frankly, they’d end up paying for it in terms of price. They won’t like that, but they’re the ones who seem to be most out of step with everyone else.”

About the trait test cost… have you heard anything about how expensive these tests will be and who, ultimately, will pay for them?

“I haven’t. The people who will gain the most will be the testing laboratories and attorneys.

“I’ve been through this before. A decade ago, we had a dioxin situation in soybean meal. The testing bill was certainly expensive.

“Going back to Starlink in corn, I believe the company responsible paid the testing costs. I’m not sure if that was for all markets or just export.”

Has APHIS indicated a time-frame for getting variety information?

“No. I’m not aware of any. I do know DNA testing takes time. I do hope they’re giving it the priority it needs.

“One of my quarrels about this whole event — not with APHIS, but with USDA senior officials — is I don’t believe this required a secretary of agriculture press conference.

“I believe that when it is necessary to release this type of information, it should be done at the APHIS level. The press conference gave it much more attention and fanned the flames more than it needed.

“When I was at the USDA we never would have done it this way. We were fortunate it happened on a Friday afternoon.”

Anything else?

“(Farmers should) keep varieties separated as long as (they) can. That’s the best advice for farmers, right now. And I know that’s not much. But I just don’t know what else to say.

“We will keep the pressure on APHIS to get their testing done quickly so we know which variety the trait is in.”

e-mail: dbennett@farmpress.com