Ayse Bereket, May 1, 2013

GM Rice Scandal in Turkey from U.S. Imports Reaches International Proportions

On April 4th 2013, the Turkish media reported that around 23,000 tons of genetically modified rice imported from United States-based companies had been seized by the Customs and Trade Ministry in the Turkish southern province of Mersin. Three Turkish companies, Tat Bakliyat, Agro Tarım and Göze Tarım were the importers. The U.S. exporters were Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) Rice and Bunge Ltd. The Mersin Police Department’s anti-smuggling department initially detained eight company executives to later arrest seven on bio-terrorism and smuggling charges. The eighth person was released pending trial. Samples from the seized imported rice as well as collected from supermarket shells were sent for analysis to the Scientific and Technological Research Council of Turkey (TÜBİTAK) and other certified laboratories according to Customs and Trade Minister Hayati Yazıcı’s statement. Prosecutors began an investigation after analysis revealed the presence of GMOs.

Although the imported GMO rice was seized by the Customs and Trade Ministry (GTB) following a tip off, the Food, Agriculture and Livestock Ministry (GTHB) is the government body responsible of GMO inspections in Turkey. On April 10th 2013, in a press statement Food, Agriculture and Livestock Minister Mehdi Eker dismissed all allegations of any GMO food entering Turkey. “No trace of GMOs were detected in rice in any of our inspections”, he added. He also underlined that there were no records whatsoever of any GM rice being subject to international trade.
Minister Eker’s press statement fell very far from the truth and was in contradiction with the Ministry regulations. According to the Agricultural Ministry, rice is cited among one of the nine “risky imported goods” and the USA is one of the nine “risky import countries”, meaning that rice imported from the USA should be 100 percent analyzed by the Agricultural Ministry before entering the country.
According to USA Rice Federation, Turkey imported 147,757 metric tons of U.S. rice in 2012, valued at $63 million. Turkish rice production in 2011 was 900,000 metric tons. Turkish yearly rice consumption in 2011, reached about 500,000-580,000 metric tons. According to daily Newspaper Hürriyet, the Customs Enforcement Agency reported that these three Turkish companies imported about 100,000 metric rice in the last year, which is equivalent to 1/5 of Turkey’s rice consumption.
Following my article “Minister Eker’s Dilemma: Rice is safe according to the Minister, risky according to the Ministry”, deputy Melda Onur from the main opposition party CHP, submitted to the Parliament a written question to be answered by Minister Eker.

On the other hand, GMO rice is a very well-known and important problem in international trade. On April 24th, Greenpeace Mediterranean Turkey revealed the following information:
• There have been 344 cases of illegal GM rice import cases reported in the EU between 2006 and 2013
• Listed chronologically:
o 2013: 13 cases
o 2012: 41 cases
o 2011: 31 cases
o 2010: 49 cases
• 150 of these were from U.S. imports, 169 cases from Chinese imports
• LL601 and LL62 were the GM rice found in US imports. The GM rice detected in Chinese imports was Bt63.
• GM rice was detected in various products such as processed food, crackers, animal feed and pet food.

On April 28th 2013, Istanbul Technical University Molecular Biology-Biotechnology and Genetic Research Center lab results of the imported rice samples were leaked. The lab report concluded: “Rice specific Real-Time PCR and DNA sequence analysis of the samples MRS00083214, MRS00083330 and MRS00083332 provided to us by the Mersin Public Prosecution Office revealed the presence of both LLRice601 and Bt63 GMO rice.”
This report confirms that the U.S. imported rice was not contaminated by other GM products during transportation or storage, like it had been suggested by the Ministry and an (unnamed) American official at the U.S. Embassy in Ankara (more on the US Embassy Official in Part 3). The U.S. imported rice revealed the presence of two different kinds of GM rice: LL601 and Bt63, which are not approved commercially.
Perhaps, the most important fact revealed by ITU’s analysis is the presence of both U.S. (Bayer) LLRice and Chinese Bt63 in the same sample. This is the first recorded incident where two different GM Rice are found in the same sample, according to Greenpeace Mediterranean Turkey Agricultural Campaigner Tarık Nejat Dinç.
Greenpeace states that although Turkey became aware of the incident at the beginning of April 2013, import documentations show the rice was imported via several shipments dating back one year -April 2012 and June 2012- and that the majority is already on market shelves, and has been -and is still being- consumed for at least the past year.

Three companies – the ABC’s of agribusiness, ADM, Bunge and Cargill- control nearly 90% of global grain trade. The import documentations reveal that the rice was imported from the U.S. from two of these companies: Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) Rice and Bunge Ltd. According to USA Rice Federation, Turkey imported 147,757 metric tons of U.S. rice in 2012, valued at $63 million. Leaving Cargill aside because they are not involved in the scandal, let us take a brief look at ADM and Bunge Ltd.’s past and present records.
ADM RICE (2012 revenue: $89.038 Billion)
In the mid 1990’s, ADM and several senior executives were indicted on federal criminal charges for engaging in price-fixing in the international lysine and citric acid markets. In 1997, ADM was fined $100 million and in 1999, three top ADM officials were sentenced to federal prison to a total of 99 months. Both were record anti-trust fines in U.S. history at the time. Moreover, ADM was later fined almost $50 million by the antitrust authorities of Canada, Mexico and the European Union. The story was published by journalist Kurt Eichenwald in The Informant in 2000, and was later adapted into the 2009 Soderbergh film starring Matt Damon as the whistleblower ADM executive Mark Whitacre.
ADM has also been accused of conspiring to fix the price of high-fructose corn syrup. In 2004, after nine years of legal battle, ADM agreed to pay $400 million to Coca-Cola Co., PepsiCo Inc. and other customers to settle the federal antitrust lawsuit.
Patricia Woertz, ADM CEO since 2006, serves on the board of directors of Procter & Gamble Company and the U.S.-China Business Council. The last point is especially worth paying attention, considering that both US LL601 and Chinese Bt63 GM rice were detected in the imported rice in Turkey.
Let us also note that ADM has teamed up with Bayer (the patent owner of GM rice LL601) and German carmaker Daimler AG to explore and produce tropical plant Jatropha-based biodiesel fuel in 2008. Reuters reported that “ADM runs several biodiesel refineries worldwide, while Bayer CropScience plans to develop herbicides, insecticides and Jatropha plants.”
BUNGE LTD. (2012 revenue: $61.0 billion USD)
The White Plains, NY-based company was involved in a much publicized scandal in the 1970′s. On June 20 1975, Time Magazine reported that “Bunge plead no contest to a federal charge that it had for almost twelve years, until June 1973, short weighed ship cargoes […] The company also offered no defense against a charge that it used false invoices to market surreptitiously to U.S. companies every three or four months up to 25,000 bushels of the leftover grain -in effect stolen from foreign customers.” Bunge paid a small fine of $20,000 but “as part of an unusual plea-bargaining arrangement, Bunge agreed to allot $2 million to $3 million of its own money over a three-year period to hire more inspectors for its elevators, and pay for additional auditors, independent certified public accountants and an outside compliance consultant.”
More recent news includes Argentina suspending Bunge from the grain register because of unpaid income taxes since 2006. The nation is seeking a full payment with interest of $126.3 million from Bunge Ltd.
As for Bunge’s environmental record, Rainforest Action Network (RAN) has being accusing Bunge “of disregarding human rights and the environment and accused Bunge-whose profits reached a record high last quarter-of benefiting from the global food crisis, using slave labor in Brazil, and causing deforestation of the Amazon Rainforest and the adjacent Cerrado.” The largest soy exporter from Brazil, the company also uses native wood from the Cerrado to power its soy facility. Bunge, one of the companies behind the expansion of soy production and ethanol production in Brazil, is one the major contributors of deforestation and the displacement of indigenous and other small farming communities.

Following the news that 23,000 tons of GM rice imported from the U.S. was seized and the arrest of Turkish company executives on bio-terrorism and smuggling charges, and before the Istanbul Technical University’s (ITU) lab analysis were leaked, a number of statements aiming to misguide Turkish public opinion were made.
Food, Agriculture and Livestock Minister Mehdi Eker commented that no trace of GMOs were detected in rice in any of their inspections and that there were no records whatsoever of any GM rice being subject to international trade. Although the Ministry of Customs and Trade was initially the government body to seize the GM rice which led to the investigation and rice sample analyses, Minister Hayati Yazıcı, also stated that there was no GM rice production in the world, and to add insult to injury, recommended that Turkish people should prepare their rice dishes with butter -as it is traditionally cooked-, unless they were on a diet. Both Turkish Ministers misinformed the public and ignored the fact that GM rice, which is not commercially approved, is a major issue in international trade (see Greenpeace figures here).

About the same time these statements were being made, on April 14th, another source provided false information. The Turkish media reported that an “unnamed” official from the U.S. Embassy at Ankara, met with three newspaper representatives concerning the GM rice imported from the U.S. This unnamed official, known to be Clay Hamilton, the Agricultural Attaché in Ankara, made several comments misinforming and misguiding the Turkish public opinion. According to newspapers, the official stated “there is no GM rice production in the USA, the rice is being contaminated during transport by other GM products such as soy and corn, and Turkey should have less rigid GM contamination regulations”. He also added that if Turks had their imported mobile phones tested for GMO, they would see that these were also contaminated because they were being transported in the same ships as GM animal feed.
First, the “there is no GM rice in the U.S.” part of the statement is completely false. In 2006, Bayer CropScience, (also the patent owner of LL601 found in the imported rice) had contaminated more than 30% of U.S. ricelands with its varieties of LLRice. In 2011, Bayer agreed to pay $750 million in compensation to more than 11,000 farmers. This incident had also international repercussions and a major impact on U.S. rice exports. Many countries including the European Union, Japan, South Korea and the Philippines imposed strict certification and testing on all U.S. rice imports, while Russia and Bulgaria banned U.S. rice imports. In Turkey, the Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Livestock considers rice as one of the risky products and the USA is one of the risky countries in regard to imports and GMOs. (According to USA Rice Federation, Turkey imported 147,757 metric tons of U.S. rice in 2012, valued at $63 million.)
Second, the recent ITU lab reports have proven that the rice imported from U.S. companies ADM and Bunge Ltd. have not been contaminated by other GM products. The samples reveal the presence of both Bayer’s LL601 and the Chinese Bt63 GM rice, a first-time occurrence of both GM rice in the same sample.
Third, and perhaps most importantly, the U.S. official is trying to cloud public opinion by misguiding and misinforming about the Turkish GM contamination regulation tolerance levels being stricter than the EU’s, whereas in fact they are identical. In the EU, as in Turkey, the policy for unapproved GMOs is “zero tolerance”.
The 0.9% threshold that the embassy official keeps mentioning to confuse the public is a contamination threshold for mandatory GM labeling of approved GM products, provided it is “adventitious and technically unavoidable”. Turkish regulations do not differ from the EU’s in this regard either, however since GMOs for human consumption are not approved in Turkey, the existing 0.9% tolerance level regarding labeling is therefore not applicable.
Turkey’s GMO regulation, the Turkish Biosafety Law (Law No. 5977), came into force on Sept. 26 2010. GM crops are not allowed to be cultivated in Turkish soil. The Biosafety Council of Turkey has approved the import of 16 GM corn and 3 GM soy varieties for animal feed purposes only. No GM products are approved for human consumption.

The involvement of the U.S. Embassy official from Ankara comes at a very meaningful time. The U.S.-EU trade talks are expected to begin by June 2013. “The proposed Transatlantic Trade and Investment Pact would be the biggest trade deal since the World Trade Organization was founded 20 years ago,” Reuters reported. The main topics of the trade talks are expected to be subsidies and and GMOs. The U.S. Official is not only trying to cover up a scandal that could have similar international repercussions as the Bayer LLRice incident of 2006; he is also trying to use Turkey as the Trojan Horse for loosening EU GM regulatory approaches, the most crucial and problematic part of the upcoming US-EU talks. The U.S. is pushing for the %0.1 threshold for unnaproved GMOs in the EU. Turkey, being more strict in the sense that GMO cultivation is banned in Turkey and some GMO varieties approved in the EU are banned in Turkey.
Previous attempts of U.S. Embassy Officials putting pressure on foreign governments, threatening retaliation and promoting GM products have been common knowledge since Wikileaks released several embassy cables regarding France, Spain, The Vatican and Ukraine. The Guardian reported in a January 3rd, 2011 article “In addition, the cables show U.S. diplomats working directly for GM companies such as Monsanto. […] The cables show that not only did the Spanish government ask the U.S. to keep pressure on Brussels, but that the US knew in advance how Spain would vote, even before the Spanish Biotech commission had reported”.
Following these recent developments Greenpeace Mediterranean Turkey, whose successful 2012 campaign gathered more than 325,000 signatures and resulted in the withdrawal of 29 GM product import applications for human consumption, began a new campaign. Greenpeace claims that the Minister of Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Livestock Minister Mehdi Eker has already prepared a new law resolution (containing 3 articles) aiming at loosening up the law regarding GMO contamination threshold. The U.S. lobby’s pressure is obvioulsy already deeply felt by Minister Eker. Greenpeace is asking Minister Eker not to present this resolution to the Parliament using contamination as a false pretense and to ban with a law all GMOs from Turkish food.

more info on GM Rice