Minefield of rice

Archive news - March 2008 (Please note links may no longer be active)

In 2006, a flurry of contamination scares started when nearly 20% of long-grain rice from America was found to be contaminated with an illegal GM strain. Before the dust had settled on the first one, more GM rice contamination was discovered in US and Chinese rice.

The biggest culprit was LL601, an experimental rice genetically transformed to be resistant to 'Liberty' weedkiller. US regulators moved quickly to limit the damage to their internal rice market, and the contaminant became their first approved GM rice.

That there should be little apparent regulatory concern about legalising a herbicide-tolerant GM rice is ironic, because the US is no stranger to the dangers of genetic contamination from such a rice. In recent years, rice-growing states like Louisiana have become increasingly dependent on rice with 'Clearfield' technology, designed to overcome the problem of contamination from wild 'red rice' weeds. 'Clearfield plants have a natural gene which allows them to tolerate the herbicide 'imazethapyr', sold by BASF as 'Newpath'. The company which holds the breeders rights to Clearfield plants has formed a partnership with BASF to market and police their Clearfield-Newpath package. Cross-breeding with red rice is a commercial problem because the hybrids vary in important agronomic characteristics such as plant height and yield. Because Clearfield and red rice are closely related, they cross-breed very easily. A study of the adverse consequences to a crop contaminated with red rice, published in 2006, recommended early-season field scouting and crop rotation schemes to limit cross-breeding and prolong the usefulness of the Clearfield technology.

Despite the obvious lack of sustainability of any herbicide-tolerant/herbicide system for any crop grown near a weed it can easily hybridise with, US rice consultants are ignoring the time-tested techniques of minding the crop and crop rotation. They are instead plugging expensive, high-tech solutions: “GE rice is definitely a tool needed by US farmers”, “We need the LibertyLink type of technology because the Clearfield technology could start to break down by crossing with red rice. Once that takes place, red rice will become established and we won't be able to kill these red rice plants with Newpath herbicide”, and, the GM concern issues “need to be resolved where everyone will have confidence in our system”, “Our biggest obstacle to acceptance of GE crops is education of the end user and consumer of the GE product. The stigma applied to GE has got to be changed. We have to move forward. We have to find a way to correct the problems we have.”

One outcome of the global GM rice contamination has been that it has forced regulators to look more closely at what they are doing. The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) has realised its oversight regulations for GM rice research need changing. The co-mingling of the GM test variety and non-GM commercial strain was traced to a single research station, but the question of how it happened will never be answered. The investigation has been thwarted by a lack of records and the disappearance of all crop samples from the time all the rice strains were grown together. The crops which were cultivated at the same time were separated by a distance of sixteen times wider than the requirement at the time (which was only 10 feet). The Biotechnology Regulatory Service is, therefore, proposing new rules on record-keeping, sample maintenance, and isolation distances.

To encourage industry to “keep a handle on things”, a new, voluntary, Quality Management Program, is being introduced. “to help those who receive permits ... manage their trials in the best possible way to meet regulatory requirements.”

Another outcome of the GM rice scare was that the State of Minnesota voted to protect the purity of its wild rice. Wild rice is not only historically and economically important for Minnesotans, it is sacred to
the Ojibwe people. It is an important food, and forms part of prime fish and duck habitats. The Minnesota Environmental Quality Board will now monitor the declining wild rice population and keep tabs on potential genetic contamination throughout the country. This is the first time a US state has moved to protect a native crop.

In Europe, the illegal GM contamination has inspired a clarification of the “chain of responsibility” for ensuring that imported products do not contain GM material:
  • the exporting country must ensure its products are certified free of GMOs
  • the EU member states must control their borders and their imports besides their existing markets
  • businesses must ensure products imported by them do not contain GMOs.
In December 2007, the EU seems to have started moves to lift its requirement for all US rice to be tested on arrival and sent back if found to contain GM. However, only two months later, Greenpeace reported another two new contamination incidents in imports from the USA: the same unauthorised Bt601 rice reported in 2006, and Bt 62.


The points of collapse in the system, as highlighted by the ongoing contaminations of our rice supplies by experimental GMOs, are breathtaking.

At the local level, farmers face economic ruin, while traditional farming systems and sacred native rice are threatened. At the research level, scientists seem to be cavalier with both their record-keeping and their housekeeping. The EU has realised that every single step in the process of export/import of foods must take responsibility for checking purity (and in a global market, that's a lot of very expensive steps). The US is, unfortunately, still trying /not/ to regulate GM: records won't /prevent/ GM contamination; isolation distances have to be measured in miles, not feet; housekeeping doesn't seem to feature much in their plants; voluntary systems of control are, by nature, bendable. US rice consultants can't get their heads around any future except herbicide-tolerant GM rice and chemicals no matter how much harm is done to the industry. They are clinging to notion (repeatedly proven false in Europe, for example, by the 'narrow but deep' arm of the UK GMNation? debate) that consumers just need to be educated to embrace GM.

Safety is consistently given the brush-off.

Concerns about the intrinsically unpredictable nature of food artificially altered by artificial DNA is lost in a sea of legal fussing.

And, no one, but no-one, is mentioning the biotech industry's role in all of this.

The only way out of this expensive, unmanageable, short-sighted, GM minefield is to STOP.


  • Jess Halliday, Commission takes emergency measures on GM rice imports, www.foodproduction 15.04.08
  • David Bennett, Lousianan Clearfield Lawsuit Points to Stewardship Requirements, Delta Farm Press, 25.04.06
  • Zhang et al., Risk assessment of the transfer of imazethapyr herbicide tolerance from Clearfield rice to red rice (Oryza sativa), Euphytica 152:1 November 2006 pp.61-86
  • Biotech industry impunity fuels global GE contamination spread, Greenpeace Press Release, 28.02.08,
  • Rapid Alerts, Week 8, 2008, 21.02.08
  • Elton Robinson, New rules for GE rice research? Delta Farm Press 9.02.08
  • EU Decision on GMO Testing Opens Door for US Rice, Reuters, 21.12.07
  • New statute protects the DNA of wild rice, Associated Press, 29.05.07
  • John Vidal, US rice kept out of Britain because of GM contamination, Guardian 30.09.06

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