GE rice resistance: market rejects gene-altered crop

by Robert Schubert
CropChoice editor

Farm News from Cropchoice
An alternative news service for American farmers

(Feb. 22, 2002 - CropChoice news) - It's further away from
commercialization than transgenic wheat, but the prospect of genetically
modified rice has consumers and farmers concerned.

"If there is consumer perception that GMO (genetically modified organism)
is a risk, then we have to respect that," says Gary Simleness, who
organically grows rice in northern California.

Aventis has backed off from commercializing the rice it engineered to
resist the Liberty herbicide (glufosinate) largely because of warnings
from millers and large value-added domestic and foreign producers that
they'll reject it. While farmers in the southern United States found that
the so called LibertyLink rice worked well to combat the persistent red
rice weed problem there, other growers question the wisdom of producing a
crop that consumers don't want.

With the insertion of a gene making it resistant to glufosinate, "we give
growers the opportunity to control red rice," says Andy Hurst, Aventis
manager for Liberty herbicide. The red rice weed is competes vigorously
with rice crops and can decrease yields and the quality of the harvest.

Charles Reiners was one of 18 growers in Louisiana and Arkansas who
participated in an experimental planting of LibertyLink in 2000. He
planted the rice on 95 acres of the land he farms with his brother in
Acadia County, Louisiana. The weed control was good, he says.

Despite these benefits, says Hurst at Aventis, "the biggest issue in
bringing Liberty Link rice to market is gaining acceptance from
processors. Currently, most of the millers are against it." He would not
say what the company is doing to change their minds.

Resistance is real

Although a spokeswoman from the Kellogg Company in the United States
refuses to speculate about whether the company would ever accept
genetically modified rice to make cereals such as Rice Krispies, the
German branch of Kellogg left little doubt. "We cannot use GM products
because the consumer would not accept them," says spokesman Juergen

Beermakers Coors Brewing Co. and Anheuser-Busch, Inc. also sent negative
signals about genetically modified rice. Both companies use the rice as
an adjunct in some of their beers.

"We have no plans at this point to use GMO rice," says Coors spokesman
Kevin Caulfield. The company yearly uses 60 million pounds of rice, most
of which comes from California.

In the future, "we would say that we have no plans to use it," says Carlos
Ramirez of Anheuser-Busch, Inc.

The California case
Those in the California farming community, responsible for growing the
rice crop that in 2000 earned the state $174.3 million in exports and a
total of $232 million, have expressed concern about the prospects of
rejection from these companies and others. The fact that commercial
production of genetically modified rice in the state is at least five to
seven years away, says California Rice Commission Director Tim Johnson,
has not allayed their fears.

Unlike soybeans and corn, rice has no commodity neutrality, meaning that
it is more connected to consumers, Johnson says.

"Generally, rice producers are in need of more markets, so why jeopardize
the existing markets when they don't want GMO rice," asks Bryce Lundberg,
director of organic certification at Lundberg Family Farms in California.
The company has stated its opposition to the use of genetically modified
organisms in agriculture on its website -

Former rice farmer and president of California Certified Organic Farmers
Brian Leahy agrees: "The two transgenic food crops pushed hard - corn and
soybeans - are hurting farmers because of market rejection." Almost
one-quarter of the U.S. corn crop is planted with transgenic corn and
nearly 70 percent with modified soybeans.

Consumers and value-added producers in Europe have responded by seeking
non-transgenic varieties elsewhere. The value of corn exports to the
European Union has fallen from $305,168,000 in 1996 to $1,613,000 last
year, according to USDA statistics. Soybean exports to the European Union
also have fallen off considerably as its buyers look to Brazil, where a
moratorium on the cultivation of genetically modified crops continues, to
supply soybeans for food and feed.

Although rice cross-pollinates less easily than corn and canola, it is an
issue, Leahy says. The bigger concern is the ease with which small,
lightweight rice seed blows around and hides in cracks and crevices of
seeding, transportation and processing equipment. The prospect of farmers
seeding transgenic rice, were it ever to reach commercialization, from the
air concerns both Leahy and Lundberg. Rice growers often plant fields
from the air.

Although he's now an organic rice grower, agronomist Gary Simleness worked
in conventional agriculture in California as a crop consultant and state
licensed pest control advisor. He made the switch to organic farming
largely because he sees it as a great and expanding niche market.

"California has got one of the world's safest food supplies because there
is 100 percent reporting in the use of production tools (pesticides and
fertilizers) and safety testing in the marketplace," he says. "Consumer
concerns about pesticide residue may not be valid from a safety
standpoint, but from a perception standpoint they are real. It's the same
with GMOs. If it's a perceived threat, then it's a threat. Large
corporate conglomerates pushing this onto farmers and then on to consumers
is disastrous."

To those farmers who see benefits in growing transgenic rice, he asks,
"what good is growing herbicide tolerant rice if consumers don't want it?
If you then ram such products down their throats through (government
trade) policy, that just doesn't work in the end."

Simleness successfully deals with red rice and other weeds on his 780-acre
farm by each year leaving about half of the acreage fallow or by planting
a cover crop to regenerate the soil and choke off weeds.

Working through the legislature

In an effort to address the issue, the California Legislature and governor
passed and signed the Rice Variety Certification Act. It established an
advisory board to determine whether any new rice types could impact
existing varieties. If the advisers determine that potential for
contamination exists, then they will set the production parameters for the
rice. They also review the protocol for rice research in the state to
ensure that experimental varieties are not affecting commercial production
through co-mingling or cross-pollination.

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