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2-Plants: China's problem with 'anti-pest' rice



------------------------------- GENET-news -------------------------------
TITLE:  China's Problem With 'Anti-Pest' Rice
SOURCE: The New York Times, USA, by David Borboza
       
http://www.nytimes.com/2005/04/16/business/worldbusiness/16rices.html
DATE:   16 Apr 2005
------------------ archive:  http://www.genet-info.org/ ------------------


China's Problem With 'Anti-Pest' Rice

WUHAN, China, April 14 - The farmer reaches down into a sack he keeps stored
on the second floor of his house in a small farming village south of here
and pulls up a fistful of rice that he says has no equal.

"This is really remarkable rice," he says, forcing it into the hands of his
guests. "All you do is plant it and it grows. You don't need to use all
those chemicals any more." The farmer and other crop growers in this area
call this unique variety "anti-pest rice" because it acts as its own insect
repellent in the rice paddies. But some Chinese growers and foreign
specialists say they suspect much of this region's rice has been
genetically modified.

And in China, it is illegal to sell genetically modified rice on the open
market.

The environmental group Greenpeace, which had rice in this area tested by an
independent lab in Germany, says the results show that some of the rice was
altered with a gene that creates resistance to pests.

Although experiments with gene-altered rice are under way in most
rice-producing countries, including the United States, no country produces
it for commercial sale.

Cultivation and consumption have been tempered by criticism over the
potential health or environmental consequences. Although no such effects
have been proved, the opposition has worried regulators, leading them to be
cautious in approving gene-altered rice. It also has prompted reluctance
among growers around the world to embrace a crop that may be labeled
Frankenstein food.

Yet in several small villages around Wuhan, in Hubei province, a large
rice-growing region in central China, genetically engineered rice appears
to be for sale, even by government officials who are supposed to be
enforcing a ban on its sale until it is approved for commercialization,
perhaps this year.

Chinese officials hope the commercialization of genetically engineered rice
in China, the largest producer and consumer of rice, will be a momentous
global event, because rice is the world's largest and most important food
staple. If the technology works, genetically engineered rice could offer
higher yields.

But now activists like Greenpeace are warning that in Hubei, genetically
engineered rice has prematurely seeped into a corner of China's food
system. They say the possible health and environmental risks are worrisome
because genetic engineering is still in the experimental stage.

If biotech rice has found its way into the food system here, China has
become the first place in the world where a major crop, in this instance
rice, is being directly consumed by humans - and without regulatory
approval. But there are many unanswered questions, starting with the scale
or even the existence of any risks to health.

Gerard Barry, a scientist at the International Rice Research Institute in
the Philippines, said there was virtually no evidence that genetically
modified crops were harmful to humans. He said the gene used in China's
biotech rice could be similar to the gene in what is called BT corn and
cotton, which is approved for use in Europe and the United States.

"There have been multiple approvals in corn and cotton, and there has been
nothing to suggest allergies or other problems," he said.

There are other unanswered questions. Chinese government officials say they
are beginning their own investigation, so aside from explanations from
local farmers, there are no official answers to questions about how much or
how long the rice has been sold and how many people may have eaten it.

Greenpeace said it bought rice in seed markets and had the suspect packages
tested by GeneScan, a respected biotech lab in Germany.

Many sellers here said the supplies came from a local university that
specializes in biotech rice research. They said bags of rice could be
bought there. But the university store was also out of the rice.

"All the anti-bug seeds have been sold out," said a woman operating the
store at the Huazhong Agriculture University in Wuhan. "We started to sell
them around January, and it was the most popular product and sold out in
the middle of February." At a government-owned seed market south of Wuhan,
a sales agent said the "anti-pest rice" was no longer available and in any
case, it was not legal to sell it. There was none at the government store,
he said.

But minutes later, after some negotiation, the government sales officer
agreed to sell a bag of "anti-bug rice" for a premium price. His assistant
then pulled a bag from under a shelf and placed it in a dark bag.

The bag of seed has the same label that Greenpeace identified as containing
a variety of genetically engineered rice. The label shows a lightning bolt
striking a bug.

The package does not identify the seeds as genetically modified rice but
only as "anti-pest" rice.

Greenpeace's accusations are certain to complicate China's aggressive push
to commercialize genetically engineered rice, which proponents had hoped
would drastically alter the debate over the safety of genetically modified
crops.

Scientists here hoped the Chinese government would approve biotech rice and
declare its consumption safe later this year, setting the stage for other
rice-producing countries in Asia to introduce their own versions of biotech
rice. But now, China is dealing with a situation that has plagued biotech
efforts in other parts of the world after unapproved varieties of corn, for
example, leached into the food supply and black market biotech seeds were
smuggled across borders.

In the United States, genetically modified corn is a growing portion of the
market, and modified soybeans are widely sold and well accepted. But the
health and environmental concerns that crept up in the late 1990's have
stalled the commercialization of biotech wheat.

This week, Anheuser-Busch, the nation's largest beer maker and the No. 1
buyer of rice, threatened to stop buying rice in Missouri if some farmers
grew genetically modified rice in field tests. Yesterday, however, the
company reached a compromise after the state pushed the farmers to grow the
gene-altered crops 120 miles from other rice fields.

Fears in Europe and America that the crops have not been sufficiently tested
has spurred debate over the last seven years, but not in China, where
biotech research, particularly on rice, is largely driven by government
labs trying to improve crop yields and reduce pesticide use. But now, the
government investigation, led by China's agriculture ministry, will examine
Greenpeace's assertion that a group of "rogue scientists" have sold
experimental varieties of genetically altered rice on the open market to
consumers in Hubei.

"This is irresponsible and dangerous," says Sze Pang Cheung, a Greenpeace
official who helped uncover the sales in Hubei and estimates that more than
1,000 tons of genetically engineered rice are on the local market. "The
government needs to act. If they cannot control G.E. rice even at the
experimental stage, how are they going to control large-scale
commercialization?" Still, just a day after Greenpeace announced its
findings, seed market officials in Hubei talked openly about the popularity
of the "anti-pest rice" and admitted selling it at a premium price, saying
they had recently run out of stock.

Farmers and seed market officials here say the planting of biotech seeds is
widespread in the region and has occurred for about two years. But they
also say many farmers do not eat the rice they harvest. Some farmers think
that anything that kills a field pest could also prove harmful to people.

But the farmer holding the fistful of rice in his home says he and his
family eat all the anti-pest rice he produces.

"Why not?" he says with a broad smile. "I don't believe the government would
poison its own people."




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