September, 2006) – The past few weeks have seen rice hit the headlines
– GM-rice, that is, not the nice rice of rice puddings.
The first bombshell was that US long-grain rice may contain traces of LLRICE601, a herbicide-tolerant GM variety containing the phosphinothricin-N-acetyltransferase (PAT) protein. Although this protein in the closely related varieties was submitted to the US regulator for approval for human consumption, Bayer (the company involved) had not finished the process of getting LLRICE601 approved for marketing before dropping the project several years ago. But the company did complete the process for LLRICE62 and LLRICE06, two other varieties of rice with the same inserted gene. While neither of those two was ever marketed, the US Agriculture Secretary said the approval offers reassurance that 601 is probably safe (1).
Why the approval application for LLRICE601 was withdrawn is unclear but it seems to have been for commercial reasons. How the strain came to be widely distributed in commercial rice is not yet known; presumably somebody made a mistake, or was careless, but who, when, how and why have yet to be revealed. Somebody was responsible but it may have been far back in the history of this strain, before the company in its present form even existed.
LLRICE62 and LLRICE06, having been through thorough safety evaluations, are deemed safe for use in food and safe in the environment. The safety of LLRICE62 also currently being assessed by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) as part of the authorisation procedure to allow the product onto the European market (2). Note, however, that although the protein is the same in both strains (and in others), and has been approved for human consumption, the precise genetic constructs differ in detail with the regulations accordingly demanding that each be separately evaluated.
The results of the announcement were as dramatic as could be expected. Japan banned imports of long-grain rice altogether (3). One interesting point about that ban is that Japan imports long-grain rice primarily for the use of foreigners, mainly Americans. The Japanese themselves prefer short-grain sticky rice (4).
Europe, needless to say, was not far behind. While anxious for more information (5), the EU banned imports (6), with some being held in a Dutch port (7) and the Irish ready to sue (8). Moreover, companies importing illegal genetically modified foods risk legal action by national governments (9). Across the Atlantic some US farmers filed suit against Bayer, seeking $5 million compensation for the drop in rice prices since the announcement that LLRICE601 might be present (10).
However, the latest development seems to be a move by Bayer and the USDA to deregulate (i.e. give approval to) LLRICE601 (11). What might be the consequences of that in the European Union and Japan remain to be seen.
As if all that were not enough, one of the anti-GM pressure groups claimed that an independent laboratory had found “illegal GM rice” in Europe in the form of imported Chinese rice noodles (12). Curiously though, that “….(test) facility wishes to remain anonymous so that it will not be labelled as an activist lab. ‘They worry about being associated too closely with us,’” said a spokesman for the campaign group (13). China, however, has rejected the claims, saying that the country had not approved a single case of the commercial production of GM rice (14).
The world was in turmoil – and for what? Mainly because traces of GM rice that had not received formal approval had been found in food. There are accordingly two major issues: safety and a breach of regulations.
For all the protests of the campaigners, there really does appear to be no safety issue; the rice containing traces of LLRICE601 is perfectly safe (15). But the regulatory breaches, both with the US rice and the Chinese variety, are serious because our society is based on respect for and adherence to the law. You may not like the law – in which case by all means seek to change it through well-established democratic procedures – but while it is in place it must be obeyed.
There is another question, one about the complexity of the regulatory system. It is not difficult to see how the present situation developed over the years. Were these not the consequences of excessive regulation of GM products as they impinged both upon the US and the Chinese rice:
1. for their own political and commercial agendas, various interested parties whipped up public concern;
2. governments, always willing to respond to what they perceive as public opinion whenever they possibly can, over-reacted and enacted excessive and unnecessary legislation;
3. companies, well aware of the hassle and expense of the regulatory system, refrained from seeking more approvals than they needed to;
4. nevertheless, varieties were developed for which approval, for one reason or another, was not been sought or not pursued to completion (LLRICE601); those varieties continued to exist somewhere. For a whole variety of reasons, traces of some of them may have found their way into commercial products.
5. a major flap develops: the rules have been broken (and should not have been – but nobody did it deliberately); however, no physical harm is done because companies take care to avoid making harmful products. So we have minor or major political ructions but no actual "damage", either to human or animal health or to the elusive "environment";
6. a whole agricultural sector is faced with possible major losses - for what? Because of excessive regulations? Yet all the while, crops genetically modified by cross-breeding and mutagenesis are of no interest to anybody except to the plant breeders themselves:
6. something of the sort may also have happened in China although the details are not yet published. The public sector in that country developed the GM rice strains which were tested in the field and in food. For its own political and/or commercial reasons, the Chinese government decided that then was not the time to go ahead and withheld formal approval both for planting and for food. But the varieties were out and somehow found their way into the food supply, with traces ending up in Europe. Nobody has yet fallen ill as a result.
Some authors take a radically different approach to GMO regulation, arguing that “regulation exacts societal costs whose magnitude is almost unimaginable” (16) and that “zero tolerance” is the problem (17).
Is there really any reason other than politics for oppressive regulation of GM crops while turning a totally blind eye to genetic modification achieved by traditional cross-pollination and mutagenesis? In neither of those cases is there any requirement to test for safety or environmental effects, nor to characterise genetic changes: we simply do not know what has happened to the genomes of plants modified in those procedures. Their value and suitability is judged purely on an empirical short-term basis. Yet the placing of “GM” crops in a special category demonises them so that, while LLRICE62 and LLRICE06 have been “approved”, virtually the same genetic event in LLRICE601 causes upheaval in the world’s rice economy. Something has gone badly wrong.
Nevertheless, one can always look on the brighter side. There are plans afoot to boost rice photosynthesis with inserted genes, allowing it to grow faster and larger (18). The researchers hope to do this by inserting genes from maize or from wild relatives of rice that are more efficient at photosynthetic carbon dioxide uptake. It will take about four years to determine whether the technique is feasible and another 10-15 years until the first improved varieties are available.
1. Nation's rice supply contaminated with unapproved variety. Arizona Republic (19.8,2006) (http://www.azcentral.com/arizonarepublic/news/articles/0819rice-genetic0819.html)
2. Anthony Fletcher. FSAI bans GM rice, US farmers sue Bayer. Food Navigator (31.08.2006) (http://www.foodnavigator.com/news/ng.asp?n=70222&m=1FNE831&c=kzldommuocyjajp)
3. Japan ends U.S. long - grain rice imports. New York Times (19.8.06) (http://www.ndtvprofit.com/homepage/storybusinessnew.asp?template=&whichstory=n&id=32895)
4. Rice Tariffication in Japan: What Does It Mean for Trade? Agricultural Outlook (April 1999) (http://www.ers.usda.gov/publications/agoutlook/apr1999/ao260c.pdf)
5. Jeremy Smith. EU still anxious for details on U.S. biotech rice. Reuters (30.8.06) (http://today.reuters.com/news/articleinvesting.aspx?view=CN&storyID=2006-08-30T134816Z_01_L30836545_RTRIDST_0_FOOD-EU-USA-RICE.XML&rpc=66&type=qcna)
6. EU adopts tough rules for U.S. long-grain rice. Wall Street Journal (24.8.2006)
7. Dutch port holds contaminated US GMO rice. Dow Jones (31.8.06) ((http://framehosting.dowjonesnews.com/sample/samplestory.asp?StoryID=2006083111130005&Take=2
8. Food watchdog to clear banned US rice from shops. Irish Independent (31.8.2006)
9. Food cos risk legal action if import illegal GMO crops. Wall Street Journal (6.9.2006)
10. Robert Patrick. 3 Missouri farmers sue Bayer CropScience over genetically modified-rice contamination. St. Louis Today (07.09.2006)
11. Lauren Morello. USDA moves to deregulate controversial Bayer rice. E&E News PM (7.9.06) (http://www.eenews.net/eenewspm/2006/09/07/ - 6)
12. Gene-altered rice from China found in EU. Reuters (5.9.2006) (http://today.reuters.com/news/articlenews.aspx?type=scienceNews&storyID=2006-09-05T050530Z_01_L04338680_RTRUKOC_0_US-FOOD-EU-CHINA-GMO.xml)
13. Emma Marris. Escaped Chinese GM rice reaches Europe. Nature (5.9.06) (http://www.nature.com/news/2006/060904/full/060904-5.html)
14. China rejects claims genetically modified rice entering EU food market. Forbes (7.9.06) (http://www.forbes.com/afxnewslimited/feeds/afx/2006/09/07/afx2999391.html)
15. Howard Cincotta. Genetically altered rice found safe, Agriculture Secretary says. US Department Of State (19.8.2006) (http://usinfo.state.gov/xarchives/display.html?p=washfile-english&y=2006&m=August&x=20060819140346attocnich0.5602075)
16. Henry I. Miller. Letters to the Editor: I have a dream: scientific, logical regulation. Policy Analysis (13 Jul 2006) (http://www.ncpa.org/sub/dpd/index.php?page=article&Article_ID=8910)
17. Elton Robinson. Zero tolerance is the problem. Delta Farm Press (7.9.06) (http://deltafarmpress.com/news/060907-tolerance-rice)
18. Mike Shanahan. Plan to boost rice photosynthesis with inserted genes. Science and Development Network (27.6.06) (http://www.scidev.net/content/news/eng/plan-to-boost-rice-photosynthesis-with-inserted-genes.cfm)