In August, Bayer Cropscience reported to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) that some of the American long grain rice crop had been commingled with its genetically modified (GM) LL-601 rice. LL-601 is the abbreviation for the gene that confers resistance to the Liberty Link herbicide. LL-601 rice, which has not been approved for human consumption, was field tested between 1998 and 2001 and was dropped by Bayer when other varieties proved more productive and it judged that the time was not ripe for introducing GM rice. No one currently knows how the LL-601 rice got commingled at a rate of six grains of LL-601 to about 10,000 grains of conventional rice.
The announcement by the USDA and Bayer produced a predictable furor. Japan immediately banned imports of American long grain rice (but not short grain rice). The European Union restricted U.S. rice imports to only those that have been tested for the offending gene. Ireland banned U.S. rice exports outright. Gleeful anti-biotech activists called for imposing a worldwide ban on imports of U.S. rice.
Before the flap over "contaminated" U.S. rice could die down, Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth declared that they had tested Chinese rice products in Britain, France and Germany and had detected the presence of rice genetically modified to resist insects. The Chinese government responded that no genetically modified rice varieties had yet been approved for commercialization. Which is true, but recent research shows that genetically modified rice offers a potentially great benefits to China's farmers and commercialization appears to be only a matter of time.
So should you dump the boxes of Rice Krispies and Uncle Ben's in your pantry into a biohazard receptacle? Nope. First, keep in mind that you've probably already have been eating foods made with ingredients from Liberty Link crops. The USDA and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have found that LL-601 gene and the protein it produces are safe for consumers and the environment in such crops as corn, soybeans and canola. As USDA Secretary Mike Johanns declared, "It is important to note that the protein found in this regulated rice line, LL Rice-601, is approved for use in other products. It has been repeatedly and thoroughly scientifically reviewed, and used safely in food and feed, cultivation, import and breeding in the United States. It is also approved for use in nearly a dozen other countries around the world." Of course, inevitably some American rice farmers are suing Bayer over their lost sales to the regulation-happy Europeans and Japanese. It's a pity they can't sue foreign regulators for lost sales due to stupid directives.
What about that Chinese rice? My guess is that if Europeans are finding traces of GM rice in food products imported from China, it's likely that enterprising anti-biotech activists will soon announce the same allegedly dire findings here. The Chinese rice has apparently been modified using the long familiar technology of incorporating a gene from bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) which acts as anti-caterpillar insecticide. Bt is non-toxic to humans and animals and does not kill insects that leave crop plants protected by it alone. So it unlikely that whatever traces of GM rice that make it into foods imported from China will harm Americans who have been eating foods made from ingredients derived from crops protected by Bt for more than a decade now. It is estimated that at least 70 percent of all processed foods on American grocery shelves are made using ingredients from biotech crops.
However, both the Bayer and Chinese cases point up how activists misuse the current case-by-case regulatory approval system.There has to be a better way to protect public health while permitting the swift introduction of safe and beneficial agricultural technologies. In fact, Drew Kershen, a professor of law at University of Oklahoma, offers a three point plan for wending our way out of the current international biotech regulatory morass.
First, GM crops and non-GM crops should be regulated in the same manner for similar or identical risks. If a regulatory system would cover a specific trait were it in a conventionally bred crop, then it should also regulate that same trait in a GM crop. If not, then it should not be regulated in a GM crop either.
Second, once a trait has been approved, it should be approved for all varieties and all crops. There is no need to make a trait go through the regulatory system again and again and again. This would clearly apply to the Liberty Link case.
And third, comparable science-based regulatory systems should mutually recognize one another's approvals of the same traits by either direct recognition or by means of a short, fast-track recognition process. Obviously, just how much confidence to repose in European, Chinese or Indian regulatory systems is subject to debate, but the principle is sound.
In any case, the rest of the world outside European Union will soon be awash in safe biotech crop varieties. The EU will eventually have to choose between stopping all imports and growing all its own food or adopting a more reasonable science-based regulatory system.
However, until something like Kershen's sensible suggestions are implemented, the world's consumers will continue to enjoy periodic bogus food scares conjured up by anti-biotech activists.