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California Growers Wary of Genetically Modified Rice
"The economic consequences [of crop contamination] would be very dramatic, very swift, and very severe. It'd be a bloodbath," says Greg Massa, Co-Chair of Rice Producers of California (RPC) and owner of a small family farm near the city if Chico. RPC are a group comprising 20 percent of California's roughly 1,000 rice farmers. They have made keeping genetically modified rice out of California a key issue because they fear it could affect exports.

Today, California rice grown commercially is GM-free, meaning it contains no genetically modified DNA. The majority is consumed domestically, and about 40 percent is exported to Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and Turkey. Exports alone are a $200 million market.

These countries' citizens are particularly adverse to genetically modified foods, and might drastically reduce imports of California rice if they learned it were contaminated with GM strains, concludes a market study compiled this month by Bryant Christie Inc. on behalf of RPC. This is bad for all California rice farmers, says Massa.

Sparking RPC's concern was an incident in August, 2006. Upon discovering that Bayer CropScience's experimental Liberty Link GM rice had contaminated much of the long grain rice supply in the Southern United States, Japan immediately banned all U.S. long grain rice imports and the EU implemented stringent testing and certification requirements. Long grain futures prices fell dramatically, crippling farmers across five Southern states.

The incident did not directly affect California since that variety of long-grain rice is not grown in this state, but it did drive up production costs because California farmers must now test all their rice to assure buyers that it is GM-free.

Yet some California farmers want to experiment with GM rice because it is grows more robustly and is more resistant to insects. In part because it is more robust, its wind-carried pollen can contaminate conventional crops nearby.

There may be health benefits as well as risks for humans consuming genetically modified food, but in general consumers are wary. For example, Whole Foods Market has led a campaign for over a decade to ensure GM foods are labeled, and many environmental and health groups advocate eliminating GM crops altogether because the risks are unknown.

As far as California farmers are concerned, they do not take a unified stance on health issues related to genetic modification, but are sensitive to how consumers feel, and particularly how they buy. That is why RPC are calling for a ban on all outdoor GM rice production in the state. "We're just not willing to take the risk of contamination," says RPC's Greg Massa.

U.S. rice farmers produce about 7 million metric tons of rice per year, but some question whether so much rice should be grown in the U.S. at all. To help the roughly 9,000 farmers nationwide, the government implements a rice import tariff of 3 to 24 percent (depending on the type), which raises the price for domestic consumers. In addition, because many rice crops are not grown in natural monsoon climates, farmers must flood their fields with drinking water; they pay about one-tenth what you and I pay for water, amounting to an effective water subsidy of around $250 million per year for California farmers alone. Furthermore, a study by the CATO Institute tallies that U.S. rice growers have received direct government subsidies of over $1 billion per year on average since 1998. To give an analogy, these combined subsidies would be enough taxpayer money to provide free lunches and milk to 5 million American school children each year.
MGR Archive 14.3.2007
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