WASHINGTON, June 15, 2016 - In most years Turkey is a big buyer of U.S. medium grain rice, but the country could be an even bigger market if not for its strict ban on genetically modified food, according to U.S. industry and government officials.

It’s not that there is any biotech rice being commercially grown or marketed in the U.S., said USA Rice Federation spokesman Michael Klein. But Turkey’s ban is so absolute – there is a zero tolerance level – and testing methods are so sensitive that rice shipments can test positive for GMOs just because they’ve been in the same containers that previously held biotech corn or soybeans.

And that’s a problem when the same barges that hauled genetically modified grains and oilseeds down the Mississippi River to Gulf Coast ports are also used to haul rice.

The barges are washed, but there’s only so much that can be done, Klein said.

“It’s a real problem,” Kimberly Sawatzki, a USDA Foreign Agricultural Service counselor in Ankara, the Turkish capital, told Agri-Pulse.

Turkey implemented its Biosafety Law – essentially a ban on biotech foods – in 2010, and a year later a shipment of Southern U.S. medium grain rice was rejected because minute traces of GMOs were detected, Sawatzki said.

The biotech ban hasn’t stopped all shipments of Southern medium grain rice to Turkey, industry and government officials said, but it is a major barrier because brokers are wary of rejections.

It’s not a problem when it comes to the Calrose rice produced and shipped from California, Klein said, but it’s effectively preventing Southern farmers from selling their cheaper medium grain rice to Turkey, Europe or anywhere else with strict GMO bans.

Price is a big issue for Turkish buyers and while they prize Calrose, it is expensive. And that’s where Southern medium grain rice could come into the picture if it weren’t for the biotech issue, Klein said. It’s about 30 percent cheaper than the California grain and that makes it extremely attractive.

Virtually all of the medium grain rice grown in the U.S. – the kind used to make cereal, sushi and rice bowls – used to come from California, but that began changing as drought continued to plague the Golden State over the past several years. Now farmers in states like Arkansas, Louisiana and Mississippi are dedicating more and more of their fields to medium grain rice and selling it in places like Taiwan that previously only bought Calrose.

Turkey is one of the countries that Southern rice farmers had hoped would make the switch from Calrose to their favored variety, Jupiter. Turkey has long been a solid market for U.S. farmers who depend heavily on foreign markets, but the country hasn’t been buying for months because of a bumper crop last year and high U.S. prices.

But that situation is changing, USA Rice officials said this week.

“Inventories are low and consumers are being put off by low quality, improperly blended rice from differing origins,” according to an account of the situation from Hartwig Schmidt, regional director for international market development at USA Rice.

Rice industry officials say they are now hopeful that Turkey will buy roughly 100,000 tons of rice this year, a nice number but less than the 175,000 tons averaged in recent years. But that will all be Calrose, and those sales numbers could be a lot higher if not for the country’s ban on genetically modified food.


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