www.checkbiotech.org ; www.raupp.info ; www.czu.cz
Fourth-generation farmer Greg Massa was in the middle of the rice harvest
and he was dirty, angry and depressed, October 2006 by Paul Elias.
The price of the gasoline that powers his water pumps and rice harvester
has never been more expensive. A late planting season, hot summer and rising
expenses had ensured a less-than-stellar harvest, with the U.S. Department
of Agriculture forecasting a 13 percent drop compared to last year.
In Yolo County alone, rice is the 5th largest crop, according to the
county's agriculture department. Sales of rice brought about $28.2 million
into the hands of county farmers.
So the last thing Massa needed was a biotechnology blunder so disastrous
that it prompted the rice industry's biggest export customer - Japan - to
prohibit some varieties and threaten to ban all U.S. imports. The European
Union is making similar threats because genetically engineered rice
continues to turn up on grocery shelves in Europe.
"If that happens, the California industry will evaporate," said Massa as he
drove the harvester around his farm about 80 miles north of Sacramento.
He has spent the past three years publicly protesting the growth of
genetically engineered rice anywhere and in any quantity. Biotech-averse
overseas consumers in Japan, Europe and elsewhere simply won't buy it, he
says, even if the crops are approved for U.S. consumption.
The U.S. rice harvest is imperiled by the discovery of small amounts of
experimental strains of genetically engineered rice in storage facilities
holding crops destined for the food supply. Bayer CropScience AG, the German
company responsible for the mistake, is still investigating how the
experimental rice got into the food supply. Federal officials say the
company's signature genetically engineered rice came from storage bins in
Arkansas and Missouri, but they don't know where it was grown.
The rice was genetically engineered by Bayer to be resistant to a weed
killer and had never been approved for human consumption. Federal officials
and company executives say the strain posed no health threat and was similar
to biotech rice that had been approved.
Still, Bayer's blunder has been costly.
Rice futures plummeted by $150 million immediately after the contamination
announcement and biotech-hating European retailers pulled U.S. rice from
their shelves. Growers in Arkansas, California, Louisiana, Mississippi,
Missouri and Texas filed lawsuits against Bayer for hurting their sales.
Rice exports are worth $200 million annually to California, which is second
only to Arkansas in rice production. Nearly all Japanese imports come from
California, which grows mostly short and medium rice grains. Longer-grain
rice is grown in the South. In all, the U.S. rice harvest fetches about $1.8
"It has caused problems in the market," said Grant Lundberg, chief executive
of Richvale-based Lundberg Family Farms, one of the state's biggest rice
growers. "It has given everybody a new perspective on this technology and
it's not positive."
A Bayer spokesman declined to comment, other than to say that the company
has no plans to commercialize any of its genetically engineered rice because
few farmers are interested in growing it.
Rice farmers throughout Northern California are perplexed that companies and
scientists are continuing to experiment with a technology so thoroughly
rejected by the market.
Japanese and European consumers have a long-standing aversion to
biotechnology products, and any changes to their food supply, a fear that
harkens back to government mishandling of mad cow disease. Those consumers
fear that not enough is known about genetic engineering to guarantee that
food is safe.
U.S. trade officials convinced Japan to lift a ban on imported rice in 1995,
but the relationship between domestic farmers and their best customer
Last month, Japan announced it would genetically test every rice shipment
entering the country and shut down all U.S. imports if it found any more
biotechnology crops. None of the genetically engineered rice at issue has
been found in California.
Many rice farmers see it as the last step before the country closes its
borders to all U.S. rice.
"There are political forces in Japan that would very much like to see
California rice no longer shipped there," said John Hasbrook of SunWest
Foods Inc., California's largest rice miller. "It's pretty much economic
suicide to let genetic engineered rice creep into California and pose a
SunWest has called for legislation banning genetically engineered rice in
So-called "golden rice" was one of the first genetically engineered crops
developed and it was aimed at alleviating malnutrition because of its
ability to produce Vitamin A. Golden rice contains a gene from the daffodil
plant and is unrelated to Bayer's rice, which is engineered with bacteria
Two rice strains that were genetically engineered with bacteria genes to
resist weed killer were approved for the U.S. market 14 years ago but never
sold because consumers around the world rejected the use of biotechnology on
such a food staple.
Still, a few companies continue to tinker with rice genes, arguing that
biotechnology can be beneficial to farmers, consumers and the environment.
Researchers continue to genetically engineer rice that can tolerate drought,
floods and disease.
Proponents hope that consumer attitudes will change over the next few years.
In Davis, near Sacramento, Arcadia Biosciences has planted two experimental
plots of genetically engineered rice. One variety is genetically engineered
with a barley gene designed to help rice better consume nitrogen-laced
fertilizer, which would cut down on the amount that ends up in ground water.
The other variety makes it easier for rice to grow in salty conditions.
Arcadia received two of the nine USDA permits issued this year to grow small
plots of experimental biotechnology rice in California. Bayer received four
USDA permits, including an approval on Sept. 7, two weeks after it divulged
its mistake. Another company permit is still pending. The USDA doesn't
release locations of such test plots and doesn't comment on biotech permits.
"The farmers will make more money and at the same time it's going to help
the environment," said Arcadia Chief Executive Eric Rey.
At the Richvale Cafe, unofficial headquarters of the California rice belt
and where growers gather daily for lunch, the biotechnology crisis has
opened a schism among the usually tight-knit community. Despite the recent
setbacks, some see the benefits of biotechnology.
"I am not against research with genetically modified materials," said Frank
Rehermann, a farmer and chairman of the California Rice Commission. "There
will come a day when people will be less apprehensive. But we do have to
grow what the market wants and Japan is really particular about this issue."
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