Farmers' Rice Crops in Jeopardy

August 29, 2006 -- 3:05 PM CDT

POINSETT COUNTY, AR -- Attorneys representing rice growers have filed two class-action lawsuits against Bayer Cropscience LP, accusing the company of negligence after trace amounts of an unapproved, genetically engineered rice was found in long-grain rice in Arkansas and Missouri.

"Genetically modified crops are used in a lot of other areas, but have not been commericalized in the rice crop," said Gary Sitzer, local rice farmer in Poinsett County.

The LLR601 genetically engineered protein was tested around the nation about five years ago, but it hasn't been certified by USDA at this time.

"Anything that hasn't been commericalized or given formal approval, of course is a concern that it can be a disruptive to the market place," said Sitzer.

Sitzer said that he's feeling the pain.

"It affected our finances rather substantially," he said.  "Within just a few days the price of rice dropped."

The value of rice crops dropped by more than $160 million last week...but what does it mean exactly to have a genetically modified crop?

"Most of the soybeans grown in the United States are genetically modified to withstand an herbicide round-up, which most people use in their gardens," said Sitzer.

So that means, making the crop tolerant to an herbicide that it wouldn't otherwise be tolerant to, but soy beans are processed, and rice is directly consumed.  Sitzer said that's why this issue is a major concern.

"Some people are worried about it for various different reasons," he said.  "It's not a safety issue.  It's more of a perceptive issue for a lot of people."

Federal officials have said the genetically engineered rice poses no health or food safety risks.

The lawsuits filed Monday in federal court in Little Rock impact rice growers in Arkansas, California, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri and Texas.

Attorneys representing 20 rice farmers were expected to file a similar suit Tuesday against Bayer and Riceland Foods Incorporated of Stuttgart.

Arkansas produces nearly half of the country's rice supply.  Japan has banned imports of U.S. rice, while the European Union has prohibited rice imports unless they've been tested and found not to contain the genetically engineered crop.