|Longji rice terraces, China|
Photo by (Stephan) on Flickr
Since rice is the main staple food of 1.3 billion Chinese people, successful non-GM crop development on the scale needed will likely have world-wide implications.
China has traditionally taken a very precautionary attitude to GM crops. Its biosafety assessment has taken more than five years to complete. Even after a GM product has been granted a safety certificate, it must undergo strict production tests at the local level (there are 28 autonomous provinces in China) before products reach the public.
With the goal of achieving 100% self-sufficiency in rice, wheat and corn (the country's three main staple crops), China is putting in place 'Plan (2011-2020)' to develop a modern agricultural crop seed industry.
In this Plan, GM is mentioned only twice and briefly. GM safety evaluation must be standardised, as must regulatory aspects of the introduction of GM varieties across different autonomous regions. New non-staple GM varieties should be developed. In other words, China is bucking the trend being imposed by the biotech industry everywhere else in the world: staple GM crops are out.
Looming large in the government awareness are doubts about the viability of gene technology in its current state. The main domestically created GM rice at present is an insecticide-generating one, 'Bt Shanyou 63'. This rice is touted as having an increased yield of 8%, but in fact this 'increase' is a saving on the cost of pesticide which has been factored in as yield. Shanyou 63 is nothing more than a 20-year old strain to which a Bt toxin gene has been added and has no potential to increase yield.
Suspension of GM rice commercialisation has followed several years of public and scientific debate in China.
Its Government has clearly been listening to scientists' appeal for caution. For example, The 'father of hybrid rice', Yuan Lon ping, has told it honestly:
“One of the major features of GM crops is their ability to resist insects, but even scientists do not know whether such an ability in these crops will have any effect on human beings”.Government biodiversity scientist, Xue Dayuan, has also been heeded when he told the authorities they still need to set up effective risk-evaluation and management mechanisms, and still need to further standardise GM agricultural crop safety evaluation. The Minister of Agriculture has pledged to ensure the safety of GM crops.
Factors such as the non-Chinese patents attached to current GM rice lines are, no doubt, significant in the decision not to proceed with GM rice because these would inevitably threaten China's food security.
Sadly, the policy on GM corn in China is likely to be more accepting. Already 20% of domestically-used corn is genetically transformed. Concerns have been raised that currently only two conventional corn varieties are being widely grown there, and these might soon have to be withdrawn due to increasing susceptibility to pests. Such lack of crop diversity is a clear threat to China's future grain security. Exacerbating this are the changing dietary patterns in China. Consumption of rice and wheat are reducing while the demand for corn-fed meat, eggs and dairy is increasing. After many years of being an exporter of corn, last year China became a net importer. Add to all of this is a perception that safety-considerations for GM animal feed are less than those for GM foods, like rice, directly consumed by humans.
Let's hope that the unfolding of Plan 2011-2020 in China demonstrates to all that:
- there are clear benefits to be had from a non-GM route to food production
- non-GM agriculture is efficient on a huge scale
- non-GM food is essential for self-sufficiency in food production.
Rice is Life: A film from Greenpeace, about how rice is so much more than just food in China.
- China says “no” to the commercialization of GE rice, Greenpeace East Asia, 25.09.11
- Chee Yoke Ling, China Suspends Commercialisation of Genetically Engineered Rice and Wheat, Third World Network Biosafety Information Service, 6.10.11
- Jiang Yunzhang, Commercialization of genetically modified staple food: not to proceed for 5 years, Economic Observer, 23.09.11
- Liu Linlin, Ministry seeks to ease GM food safety fears, Global Time (China), 30.09.11