What the Mutant Rice Phenomenon Means for Food Safety

What the Mutant Rice Phenomenon Means for Food Safety

Genetically engineered crops may help feed the world. But people who choose not to consume what alarmists call Frankenfoods should not be forced to eat them. So the ability of the government to regulate and industry to manage genetically modified crops matters. It matters a lot.

Unhappily, there's reason to believe that neither the government nor the industry is up to the job.

If you doubt it, consider the strange saga of an experimental strain of genetically engineered rice that somehow escaped from a test plot and found its way into the food supply before it was approved for human consumption. Settling the subsequent lawsuits will cost agricultural giant Bayer CropScience a whopping $750 million, the company said in July. The rice, meanwhile, has been withdrawn from the market and has not produced a dime of revenue for the company. It hasn't fed anyone except battalions of lawyers.

I first came across the rice story in 2007, and wrote a story for FORTUNE headlined Attack of the Mutant Rice. I had a great time reporting the story, visiting rice farmers in Stuttgart, Arkansas ("The Rice and Duck Capital of the World") where the nation's two biggest rice mills are located and learning what I could about the regulation of GMOs.

It's important to note that the biotech rice, which known as Liberty Link Rice because its genes had been altered to resist a weed killer called Liberty, posed no known health or environmental risks. But its spread exposed flaws in the regulatory system and cost thousands of rice farmers money because once it became known that the biotech rice had infiltrated the food supply, Japanese and European buyers (who don't want genetically modified crops) stopped importing rice from the U.S. for a time. Nearly half of the nation's rice crop, which is worth about $1.5 billion at the farm level, is exported. So prices fell, leading to about 400 lawsuits on behalf of rice farmers.

For many of America's 8,000 rice farmers -- who never wanted Liberty Link rice in the first place, because their overseas customers don't want it -- this was a horror story. Darryl Little, a widely respected official who directs the Arkansas State Plant Board, told me: "This is the most traumatic thing I've seen in the rice industry in 30 years. It's been devastating."

The lessons here are many.

First, getting unwanted, biotech foods out of the food supply is even harder, it turns out, than putting the proverbial toothpaste back in the tube. As I wrote in FORTUNE:

If in the past year or so you or your family ate Uncle Ben's, Rice Krispies, or Gerber's, or drank a Budweiser -- Anheuser Busch is America's biggest buyer of rice -- you probably ingested a little bit of Liberty Link, with the unapproved gene. (A very little bit -- perhaps ten to 15 grains of transgenic rice in a one-pound bag of rice, which contains about 29,000 grains.)

Second, biotech crops aren't easy to control once they have been planted. This is a significant issue because it casts doubt on an idea called "coexistence" -- that biotech crops and, say, organic crops can live side by side. Indeed, government efforts to solve the rice mystery — which consumed more than 3500 hours of investigative time, according to this report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture — never determined "the exact time period and means of incursion" of the engineered gene into conventional rice seeds. If you can't pinpoint the problem, how can you prevent it from happening again?

Third, the industry failed in this case to police itself. The USDA report found seven instances in which field trials of the biotech rice took place outside of permitted time periods. This summer's settlement came after a series of so-called bellwether trials in several states that allowed lawyers for both sides to see how juries reacted to the evidence -- and in most case, they were decidedly unfriendly to Bayer.

As Don Downing, a lead attorney for the plaintiffs, told the Delta Farm Press:

It's interesting that out of 50 to 60 jurors in all these cases, every single one of them found Bayer was negligent in letting (the GM traits) get out and contaminate the rice supply. Every one of them found that by doing that it harmed farmers... The jurors were unanimous on Bayer's negligence.

To be fair, this was a problem that Bayer Crop Sciences inherited. It acquired the U.S. biotech business of Aventis, a French pharmaceutical giant, back in 2001, and dropped plans to bring the Liberty Link rice to market even before the scandal surfaced. The company said: "Bayer CropScience believes it acted responsibly in the handling of its biotech rice."

Maybe. Like the farmers who sued Bayer -- many of whom grow biotech crops other than rice -- I'm not opposed to genetically modified crops. (See my blogpost, Biotech food for a warming planet.) Indeed, I'm sympathetic to the claim that a regulatory morass stands in the way of broader adoption of GM crops, as biologist Nina Federoff recently argued on The Times op-ed page.

But until the regulators and the industry get their house in order, they will rightfully find it hard to persuade skeptics that biotech crops can be responsibly managed -- in a way that protects the rights not only of those who want to grow them, but also of those who do not.