State commission worries test plants would cut sales overseas
The California Rice Commission on Wednesday called for a moratorium on experimental plantings of genetically modified rice in the state, saying federal controls meant to keep such varieties from contaminating commercial rice are inadequate.
“We have to protect our industry at all costs,” said Keith Davis, a Marysville-area rice farmer who is chairman of a group that has been reviewing the industry’s genetic-engineering policy over the past several months.
The vote is advisory, but Tim Johnson, president of the Rice Commission, said it is likely to carry weight with the AB 2622 Advisory Board, which controls nearly all test plantings of rice in the state.
The decision by the 40-member group meeting in Colusa was driven largely by concerns that the contamination of the state’s rice supplies with even a tiny amount of genetically engineered material could devastate sales to touchy export markets such as Japan and South Korea. The commission represents the state’s roughly 1,000 rice farmers and processors.
As much as 40 percent of California’s $200 million to $400 million annual rice harvest is sent overseas. Nearly all of the state’s rice grows in the Sacramento Valley, where it is the most widely planted crop.
Two still-unsolved contamination incidents in the past eight months elsewhere in the country have demonstrated the market hazards.
Last summer, a rice variety containing a gene for herbicide tolerance was found in commercial rice in several Southern states. Futures prices for long-grain rice plunged as European importers demanded that each shipment be tested. Some other countries banned U.S. rice altogether.
And on March 4, the U.S. Department of Agriculture issued what amounted to a recall for the seed of a popular type of rice grown in the South because it was found to have been contaminated with genetic material not approved for human consumption. Board members say it was this incident that led to Wednesday’s decision.
“Nobody has been able to explain to us what happened in the South,” Davis said. “We felt that we had a necessary stance to take.”
Johnson said that two experimental plantings of genetically engineered rice were approved in the state in 2006.
The DNA of genetically modified crops has been altered to yield traits such as herbicide resistance or enhanced nutritional content. Genetically modified crops are considered safe to eat, but they are opposed in many nations — including the United States — for ecological, moral and other reasons.
The use of genetically modified seed has become widespread in the corn, soy and cotton industries, and the technology is broadly endorsed by mainstream farm groups. But due in large part to export concerns, genetically modified rice has not been planted by commercial farmers in the United States or in most other countries in the world.
Last month, after a report documented the strong opposition to genetically modified rice in several key export markets, a group of 200 Northern California rice farmers called for an end to experimental plantings of such rice.
Greg Massa, the leader of the group and a longtime opponent of genetic engineering in rice, seemed almost dazed after Wednesday’s meeting.
“I’m still shocked,” said Massa, who also holds a seat on the Rice Commission board. “I went from fighting in this underdog position for the last 3 1/2 years to being in the majority literally overnight.”
Martina Newell-McGloughlin, who directs the Biotechnology Research and Education Program for the University of California system, had a mixed reaction.
“Of course any group wants to protect its market,” she said. “But I think this is fear rather than rational thought.”
Newell-McGloughlin said she believes that existing safeguards on research plantings are adequate.
The Rice Commission’s stance could put it in a strange-bedfellows situation this year as the Legislature debates a bill that would make firms that produce genetically modified seeds liable for damages if their product contaminates a field.
The state Farm Bureau opposes the bill. But the Rice Commission may find itself fighting for it alongside activist groups such as the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Food Safety.
“If the mainstream is against these things, then maybe we aren’t mainstream,” said rice grower Don Bransford.