Tainted Rice Leaves a Painful Legacy

by Mark Friedman  on Monday, Aug. 31, 2009 12:00 am  

Ray Vester, who has been farming east of Stuttgart for more than 40 years, is one of the farmers whose fortunes were affected by the discovery of genetically altered rice in U.S. crops in 2006.

Three years after the government announced that genetically altered rice had contaminated U.S. rice crops, hundreds of lawsuits are still being filed, the loss to U.S. rice farmers has reached an estimated $1 billion or more, and rice producers have permanently changed their practices.

Since 2007, rice producers have been meticulously documenting all aspects of their crops to prove that any stray strains of the genetically altered rice that contaminated their crops are gone.

"We've got to do it in order to have a market for our rice," Robert Petter, president of the Arkansas Rice Council, said last week. "It was either do it or not have a market."

That still hasn't assuaged the fears of the European Union. The 27-country EU market remains essentially closed because it demands that U.S. rice be tested and certified that it is 100 percent free of genetically modified rice.  

The EU officials' fears can be traced to August 2006, when the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced that trace amounts of genetically altered rice had somehow made its way into the U.S. rice supply.

Thousands of angry rice producers are still filing lawsuits in several U.S. District Courts across the South against Bayer CropScience of Research Triangle Park, N.C., which designed the genetically altered rice. The rice is resistant to Bayer's herbicide, Liberty Link. Plaintiffs' attorneys said in their lawsuits that Bayer wanted to develop rice that would survive spraying from Bayer's Liberty herbicide, killing weeds without damaging the rice crop.

This month alone, more than 200 separate lawsuits were filed against Bayer.

The damage done by the contamination is difficult to calculate, but some estimates put the losses for all U.S. rice farmers now at more than $1 billion, said Greg Yielding, executive director of the Arkansas Rice Growers Association.

"It was devastating," he said. "It's not just the Arkansas market. It was the market for the U.S. rice around the world."

In Arkansas, rice farmers planted about 1.54 million acres of long-grain rice, generating sales of more than $1 billion in 2005. In 2008, Arkansas farmers harvested 1.4 million acres of rice with a value of $1.5 billion.  Most Arkansas farmers grow the long-grain variety of rice. Arkansas produces about half the rice grown in the United States.

Rice producers blame Bayer for allowing the genetically altered rice to escape from a test plot into the rice supply. A spokesperson for Bayer couldn't be reached for comment, but the company, in court documents, denies any wrongdoing.

(To see the list of the top crops in Arkansas click here for a PDF or here for the spreadsheet version.)



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