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Genetically modified food: Rice checks
Last July, Japan banned the import of all long-grain rice grown in the United States. The European Union, meanwhile, is imposing expensive new tests on American rice exports.

The reason: A tiny amount of genetically modified rice was found mixed in with rice stored in Missouri and Arkansas. This is just the latest example of irrational resistance to scientific progress in plant technology and the unfair use of trade barriers to protect home-grown economic interests.

The amount of genetically-altered rice amounts to about six of every 10,000 grains found in the bins. It has not been shown to be dangerous. It's true that that particular strain hasn't been approved for human consumption, but that's because its maker didn't ask. Bayer CropScience decided not to commercialize it. The protein in question, which resists herbicides, has been approved for human consumption in other strains of rice.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration found "no human health, food safety or environmental concerns" with the modified rice. But up went the trade barriers anyway.

In European and Japanese societies, food has a cultural status that may be hard for Americans to understand and appreciate. Some cultures attach particular significance to the source and purity of food, and view genetically modified food with suspicion. Paranoia is especially acute in countries where experience - such as the outbreak of mad-cow disease in England - has shown that government assurances can't be trusted.

Rice has deep cultural resonance in Japanese that goes far beyond its nutritional value. Couple that with a bit of anti-GM fervor and it's a convenient cover for protectionist trade barriers.

As a result, genetically modified seeds are facing an uphill battle. Instead of planting crops that resist weed killer or insects, farmers continue to plant lower-yielding crops that require heavier applications of pesticides and herbicides.

That's precisely what's happening with Missouri's rice crop. Farmers simply won't use genetic rice seed for fear of rejection in the export markets, says Fred Ferrell, Missouri director of agriculture.

There is no evidence that eating genetically modified food harms people. Currently, about 61 percent of American-grown corn and 89 percent of our soybeans are genetically modified. We've been consuming genetically modified food for more than a decade. Europe now imports about 279,000 tons of American long-grain rice per year. The Japanese, who maintain tight limits on all imported rice, take very little of our long-grain variety.

Bayer grew its genetically modified seed in test fields from in 1998 to 2001. No one seems to know how rice with the same genetic traits showed up in the 2005 crop. But it does lend credence to those who argue that it's difficult, if not impossible, to keep genetically modified crops separate from non-genetically modified crops.

Ferrell notes that rice pollen rarely moves more than six feet. He suspects that the cause may lie in the mixing of crops by people rather than the movement of pollen between fields.

American trade officials gradually have been beating down foreign barriers against genetically modified American soybeans and corn. But the overreaction to the rice mix-up shows the battle is far from won.
MGR Archive 15.9.2006
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