In August the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced that some of the American long-grain rice crop had been commingled with a strain of genetically modified (G.M.) rice. Activists at Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth began talking about "contaminated" rice, and bureaucrats in the European Union ordered that every shipment of American rice be tested for contamination. Japan banned U.S. imports altogether.
The G.M. rice, known as LL601, resists an herbicide manufactured by the chemical and pharmaceutical company Bayer. Rejected as commercially unviable years ago, the strain was found in long-grain rice stores at a rate of six per 10,000 grains of conventional rice.
How dangerous is the gene? Not very. It's also found in varieties of corn, soybeans, and canola approved by the USDA and the Food and Drug Administration—food that millions of people have been eating safely for years. And in November, the USDA finally approved the rice itself as safe to eat.
But foreign countries may have another motive for banning the rice. Keeping out American rice reduces competition, something that many farmers lobby for anyway. Japan's highly subsidized rice industry, for example, already enjoys an import tariff of almost 800 percent.
The rice flap isn't deadly, but it does demonstrate a need for reform in the inefficient way genetically enhanced crop varieties are approved. Drew Kershen, a professor of law at the University of Oklahoma, argues that once a trait has been approved, it should be approved for all varieties and all crops. Until the rules are changed, harmless food will be fodder for bogus scares—and a cover for protectionism.