Attack of the mutant rice (pg. 4)

By Marc Gunther, Fortune senior writer

What went wrong?

So it's God's fault? That's about as good an answer as we've got right now to the question of what went wrong.

The USDA's Animal Plant and Health Inspection Service (APHIS) has been investigating since last summer, but the agency won't say what it has learned. In a sense, APHIS is investigating itself. Its track record, frankly, is a little scary.

In 2005 the USDA's inspector general said that APHIS, which regulates field tests of biotech foods, didn't know the location of some field trials, did no independent testing of nearby crops and did not even require submission of written protocols by some biotech firms, leaving the industry to, in effect, monitor itself.

The audit concluded: "APHIS' current regulations, policies and procedures do not go far enough to ensure the safe introduction of agricultural biotechnology." APHIS says it has fixed the problems. "We regulate technology that's constantly changing, and our policies continue to evolve," John Turner, an agency official, told Fortune.

As it turns out, it's unlikely that Jacko Garrett's Texas rice escaped from the landfill to live another day. He grew a different variety of Liberty Link from the one that got into the Cheniere seed. Instead, the source of the contamination is probably a rice research station in Crowley, La., operated by Louisiana State University. The LSU fields appear to be among the very few places - if not the only one - where the Liberty Link rice was grown in proximity to fields where Cheniere and CL131 seeds were also being developed.

The LSU rice-breeding station is run by a man named Steve Linscombe, one of the most admired men in the U.S. rice industry. Linscombe, who is 52, has devoted his entire career to developing rice-seed varieties that improve yields and resist pests or herbicides. "He has put millions of dollars into the pockets of rice farmers," says Darryl Little, the Arkansas regulator. "He's a premier breeder."

Because Linscombe understood the risks of mixing transgenic rice seed with conventional varieties, he took extra precautions when working with Liberty Link. To prevent pollen or stray kernels of rice from migrating, USDA rules recommend at least a ten-foot buffer zone around transgenic field tests. LSU's contract with Bayer called for a 30-foot isolation zone. Linscombe created buffer zones of at least 120 feet. Until now, no one thought rice pollen could travel that far.

"I did as much isolation as I possibly could," Linscombe said. So what happened? "I have been dealing with this for nine months, and I still can't give you a definitive answer," he said. Wilson, the University of Arkansas rice specialist, says, "I think we've learned some things about rice, biologically, that we didn't know before."

Whether the USDA has learned is another question. In May the agency granted Ventria's application to grow its pharma rice on up to 3,200 acres in Kansas. The agency had received 20,000 comments (most by e-mail clicks) opposing the plan from citizens, activists, farmers and rice industry groups.

Deeter, Ventria's CEO, says there's no chance that the pharma rice will find its way into the food supply, as Liberty Link did: "We're more strictly regulated, by a factor of ten - not for any good reason, by the way."

In the USDA ruling, Rebecca Bech, an APHIS administrator, wrote, "The combination of isolation distance, production practices, and rice biology make it extremely unlikely that this rice would impact the U.S. commercial rice supply."

In other words, there's nothing - nothing at all - to fear.  Top of page