TWN Info Service on Health Issues (December 06/05)

11 December 2006

American GM rice found in Africa

The presence of illegal genetically modified (GM) rice in commercial rice imports from the US has found its way to many countries, the latest being Ghana and Sierra Leone. Tests initiated by Friends of the Earth the environmental group, show contamination in long grain rice with LL RICE 601 believed to have originated from food aid from the US of which Africa is a major recipient. The following report describes the situation and the measures taken across the globe to stem the menace.

It is reproduced with the permission of South-North Development Monitor (SUNS) # 6155, 5 December 2006.

With best wishes
Evelyne Hong

Environment: American GM rice found in Africa, actions taken across world

By Chee Yoke Heong and Lim Li Ching, Kuala Lumpur, 1 December 2006

The controversial genetically modified (GM) rice - LLRICE601 - has been found in long grain rice originating from the United States in both Ghana and Sierra Leone, the main African recipients of American rice as commercial imports, according to the environmental group, Friends of the Earth (FOE).

This is the latest in a series of findings of the presence of the illegal genetically modified variety in rice imported from the US. The US government announced in August 2006 that traces of the unapproved GM rice had been detected in samples of commercial rice seed, and may have entered the food and feed supply in the US. Since then, action has been taken by governments or supermarket chains in several European countries and Japan to restrict sales or to test rice imported from the US.

In September and October, FOE in Ghana and Sierra Leone collected samples of US long grain rice in their countries and sent them for testing to an independent laboratory in the US with a validated testing method for LLRICE601. The results show that there is LLRICE601 contamination in Ghana and Sierra Leone.

"We are shocked that unapproved genetically modified long grain rice has been sent to our country through food aid channels," commented Arthur Williams, a GM campaigner with FOE Sierra Leone.

FOE Africa has called on African governments to halt untested long grain rice food aid and commercial imports from the US. It is also urging the recall of the contaminated products.

In 2002, African countries such as Zambia rejected GM corn as food aid even though they were in a situation of food shortages.

LLRICE601 is genetically modified to tolerate a herbicide called glufosinate. In August this year, LLRICE601, an experimental variety not approved (or deregulated) for commercial cultivation in the US at that time, was found in the food chain, and has since appeared in many other countries including in Europe and Japan, none of which have approved LLRICE601 for human consumption.

Though LLRICE601 is confirmed to be present in the two West African nations, it is believed that the contamination could have also affected other countries in the West African sub-region and beyond.

In the case of Sierra Leone, GM rice has also reportedly been found in rice imported from other countries such as Vietnam.

Ghana is among the top 10 importers of rice from the USA. Its imports of US rice have steadily climbed from 78,900 metric tonnes (MT) in 2001/2002 to 166,400 MT in 2004/2005.

Rice in general is an important staple for Africans and the continent is the second largest regional importer of rice in the world. Among the world's top importers of rice in Africa are Nigeria, South Africa, Senegal and the Ivory Coast.

There is concern that the contamination could have also originated from food aid from the US of which Africa is a major recipient.

Such worries are not unfounded as contamination of the food supply by GM crops or products is real. Last year, an unapproved GM corn, Bt 10, was found to have contaminated food and feed exports from the US. In Latin America, contamination of the food chain through food aid was established when an illegal corn strain, Star Link (a variety of GM corn authorized in the US for animal feed purposes only), was found there in 2002 and 2005.

When news that LLRICE601 was found in the food chain surfaced, both Europe and Japan reacted quickly and strongly despite the efforts by US officials to assure the public at large that the unapproved variety posed no threat to humans or animals, as they claimed that the level of contamination was miniscule. This was despite no known efforts to evaluate the safety of LLRICE601 with a thorough risk assessment.

Japan reacted immediately by temporarily suspending all imports of US long-grain rice. More recently, it expanded its testing of US rice for the unapproved strain, previously limited to long-grain rice and its products, to short-grain and medium-grain rice.

Major supermarket chains in Germany, Switzerland, Ireland and Norway have removed American rice from their shelves while France's main distributors have taken steps to assure consumers that all contaminated products, including packets of rice and cooked meals containing rice had been recalled. In Russia, the authorities had stopped issuing quarantine permits for US rice, effectively suspending US rice imports.

The GM industry was further hit when the world's largest rice processing company - Ebro Puleva - stopped importing US rice into Europe due to the threat of contamination. The company controls 30% of the European rice market.

In the UK, Friends of the Earth found traces of illegal GM rice in samples of rice from a supermarket. It has since taken the first step in bringing a legal challenge against the UK Food Standards Agency for its failure to take appropriate action to prevent illegal GM rice from being sold to the public.

Like Japan, the European Union (EU) also acted quickly on the news of the contamination. On 23 August, the European Commission (EC) adopted a decision requiring all consignments of US long grain rice to be tested to ensure that they do not contain LLRICE601.

These emergency measures mean that consignments of US long grain rice will not be allowed into the EU unless they have been tested by an accredited laboratory using a validated testing method and are accompanied by a certificate assuring the absence of LLRICE601.

On 6 November, the EU tightened its controls further by introducing obligatory testing at all ports of entry into the EU to ensure shipments are free of LLRICE601 rice. This followed the discovery of LLRICE601 in shipments that were certified as free of the variety.

The economic fallout from the contamination incident has severely affected American rice farmers, exporters and the food industry. Coupled with the rejection of their rice products, the farmers watched helplessly as the prices of their rice continued to drop. Following the announcement in August, the September rice futures prices on the Chicago Board of Trade sank 14% to $8.47 a hundredweight. The prices farmers can expect for their rice dropped by more than $1 per 100 pounds.

The situation is best summarized by a Chicago lawyer quoted in the Washington Post newspaper: "The damage has been done and it is still being done. They've really in a very substantial way poisoned the well."

In the last few days, Greenpeace has revealed that LLRICE601 has also been detected in the Philippines' food chain, making it one of the latest victims in a series of GM rice contamination scandals around the world.

The current situation has also prompted rice producers from Thailand and Vietnam, together the world's biggest exporters of rice, to come together to announce their commitment to grow only GM-free rice in a new Memorandum of Understanding signed last week. The two countries account for more than half of all the rice traded in the world market today.

The global food industry is now facing massive costs associated with GMO (genetically-modified organism) contamination, including testing costs, product recalls, brand damage, import bans, and cancelled imports and contracts. Millions of dollars of class action suits have been filed against Bayer CropScience, the developer of LLRICE601, by affected rice farmers in the US, for losses caused due to the contamination. They are seeking, among other things, compensation for damage incurred from the falling rice prices, which they believe will be permanent, as well as for potential loss of markets.

A few plaintiffs are also seeking an injunction requiring the company to clean up the contamination caused by the GM rice.

Though the US has since retrospectively deregulated (approved) LLRICE601, it remains illegal elsewhere. This latest development sparks concern that the US government may give the signal that it is sanctioning contamination that could lead to the increased likelihood of untested GM crops entering the food supply in the future.

It also raises questions about the ability of the current US regulatory system to address the potential environmental, human health, and socioeconomic consequences of experimental GM crops. Critics believe that the current system does not help prevent contamination by GM crops, but rather results in more instances of contamination by untested substances.

This latest case of contamination of the global food chain by an illegal GMO reaffirms the urgent need for biosafety regulations and enforcement at the international and national levels.

Given the cross-border implications of the contamination, there is also an urgent need for the completion of the international regime on liability and redress currently being negotiated under the United Nation's Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety.

Equally urgent is the need to implement a decision of the Protocol which places the responsibility on the exporting countries to segregate and test GM commodities before export, in order to ensure that GM-free shipments are maintained and that any unapproved GMOs are detected before shipment.

This is important especially for developing countries, as many will find it difficult and costly to test incoming rice shipments from the US. Requiring the exporter to provide certification issued by an accredited laboratory showing that a shipment does not contain LLRICE601 is one way of ensuring that the burden of proof falls on the exporter.