Reuters  [Printer-friendly version]
August 29, 2006


[Rachel's introduction: The U.S. rice supply is widely contaminated
with genetically modified organisms not approved for human
consumption. In 2003 and again in 2005 the Inspector General of the
U.S. Department of Agriculture criticized the department for allowing
this to happen again and again. Perhaps it's time to admit that this
technology cannot be controlled by humans, no matter how hard anyone
may try.]

By Carey Gillam, Reuters

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Criticism is mounting over the US government's
efforts to control experimental genetically modified crops in the wake
of admissions that a discarded biotech rice has contaminated US
commercial supplies.

The disclosure of the contamination of experimental biotech rice owned
by Bayer CropScience, a unit of Bayer AG, coupled with statements by
USDA officials that they have no idea how the contamination occurred
or how extensive it may be, has outraged players up and down the food

Farmers, food and beverage makers and exporters all are positioning
themselves for a long, and likely costly, ordeal.

Already, Japan has suspended imports of US long grain rice because of
the contamination, and Europe, a major export market for US rice, has
insisted rice imports be tested and any contaminated rice excluded
from shipments to the 25-member European Union.

Other US rice customers are also reportedly reviewing their planned
purchases even as US rice prices have dropped sharply.

Meanwhile, with much of the US rice industry in turmoil because the
extent of the contamination is unknown, an official with the USDA's
Animal Health and Plant Health Inspection Service said it would likely
take two to three months before the agency had many answers.

"This is real money that farmers are losing," said Arkansas Rice
Growers Association executive director Greg Yielding, who said he has
fielded dozens of calls from frantic rice farmers. "It is a big deal.
We do not feel that USDA and APHIS have adequate funds or staff to do
this job. They can't tell you where anything is even though they get
permits for it."


Over the last decade, the USDA has approved applications for more than
49,000 field site tests of GMO crops and APHIS has deregulated more
than 70 GMO crop lines, many of which have been embraced by farmers
because they are easier and/or more profitable to grow.

USDA and APHIS have touted the government's ability to oversee the
growth of biotechnology in agriculture and repeatedly assured consumer
groups and foreign governments that safety was a foremost concern for

But an Office of Inspector General audit of APHIS' and its
biotechnology regulatory services unit found numerous holes in
oversight efforts and issued a stern warning in its December 2005
report. [A 2003 report had reached similar conclusions.--DHN

It said APHIS lacks "basic information about the field test sites it
approves and is responsible for monitoring, including where and how
the crops are being grown and what becomes of them at the end of the
field test."

The OIG said that even though APHIS was supposed to inspect
experimental fields, it was not even requiring companies to provide
site location information. The government did not require companies to
document efforts to make sure GMO crops were segregated, and it didn't
test neighboring fields to look for contamination during or after
field trials.

The OIG also said it found widespread violations of a rule requiring
experimental crops to be shipped in metal containers, instead allowing
them to be shipped in boxes or bags.

Overall, the OIG audit found the APHIS regulatory system so weak that
it increased the risk that experimental GMO crops would "persist in
the environment."

The contaminated rice is only one example of unapproved GMO's slipping
into the mainstream. Last year, Swiss agrochemicals firm Syngenta
revealed that its unapproved, experimental strain of corn known as
Bt10, was found to have contaminated corn supplies from 2001-2004.

Also, a biotech grass resistant to weedkiller developed in part by
Monsanto Co. has been found growing in the wild, while ProdiGene Inc.
had to buy back and destroy millions of dollars of grain after
tainting crops with an experimental corn plant used to produce

And earlier this month, a US district judge ruled that APHIS broke
environmental rules when it allowed the planting of certain biotech
corn and sugarcane between 2001 and 2003 in Hawaii.


Because of the government oversight concerns, Greenpeace International
has called for a ban on US GMO rice and the Center for Food Safety has
said it wants a moratorium on all field tests of genetically modified
crops until government oversight improves.

"There is all this stuff in writing to give you a sense of security
but when you look at what they're actually doing, it's nothing," said
Center for Food Safety scientist policy analyst Bill Freese.

Cindy Smith, deputy administrator for APHIS' biotechnology regulatory
services acknowledged in an interview some issues with oversight, but
said those problems were largely in the past and had been corrected or
would be soon.

"You will likely continue to see the program evolve in different ways.
As long as we're regulating this technology, we're going to have to
continue to grow and expand and respond based on the nature of the
technology," Smith said.