GENET archive


9-Misc: Public must have say in GMO rice debate in China

                                 PART I
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TITLE:  Public must have say in GMO rice debate
SOURCE: China Daily
DATE:   24 Nov 2005

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Public must have say in GMO rice debate

With its immense influence on the final approval by the Ministry of
Agriculture of commercializing genetically modified (GMO) rice, the
ongoing three-day meeting of the State Agricultural GMO Crop Biosafety
Committee which began yesterday in Beijing deserves attention.

It is reported that applications for the commercialization of four
varieties of GMO rice have been submitted for the agricultural
authorities' approval this year.

For China, the world's most populous country, large-scale planting of
high-yield transgenic versions of rice will be of great significance in
feeding its 1.3 billion people, for the majority of whom rice is the staple.

Though ample supply of grain, as dipping domestic grain prices indicate,
makes it less urgent to substantially raise grain output right now, many
believe that a combination of an aging but still swelling population and
shrinkage of arable land will force the country to face possible food
shortages in coming decades.

Technologically, modified rice featuring higher yields and less
vulnerability to pests is an obvious option.

However, the lasting controversy over biotech crops, namely that they may
threaten consumer health and the environment, permits no hurry in the
decision-making process.

The national biosafety committee, the technical body which evaluates GMO
rice for research and marketing, should play a key role as gatekeeper in
ensuring that the country's long-term biosafety will not be compromised
by some short-term economic interests.

Consisting of experts from more than 10 key government departments and
academic institutions, the committee boasts the best intelligence and
understanding of the issue of GMO rice in this country.

We can certainly trust that the committee will make the most of their
expertise and exert great prudence in making responsible judgments on the
cases put before them.

Yet, given the vital importance of planting GMO rice to the whole nation,
we still urge that more transparency be introduced in the decision-making

The masses do not have more advanced knowledge about GMO rice than the
experts, but public participation will not only allow policy-makers to
hear various voices of different groups, but more importantly it will
raise public awareness of the issue itself.

Early this year, reports that non-approved GMO rice was discovered in
Hubei Province in Central China surprised the nation. Though details of
the subsequent investigation remain unclear, a shocking fact that
domestic media found was that local farmers know very little about the
possible risks of planting GMO rice.

China ratified the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety in May this year,
showing the country's determination to take a cautious approach on GMOs.

But to effectively protect the country's biosafety against illegal use of
GMO rice either for profit or out of ignorance, the authorities are
obliged to better raise public awareness on the severity of the problem.

The public hearing the National People's Congress held later September,
the first of its kind, to debate the proposed amendment of the personal
income tax law has set a commendable precedent for addressing issues of
public interest.

Since the issue of GMO rice is just as important as personal income tax,
agricultural authorities should also show equal respect for the people's
right to know.

                                 PART II
------------------------------- GENET-news -------------------------------

TITLE:  Researchers seriously evaluate GM rice
SOURCE: China Daily, by Jia Hepeng
DATE:   29 Sep 2005

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Researchers seriously evaluate GM rice

Every morning, 40-year-old Xia Guoyuan, a farmer in Xiaguanyuan, a town
in Hubei Province, tours his paddy fields.

Xia was selected last year to join the scientists' trial programme to
plant genetically modified (GM) rice, known for its resistance to pests.

In the past two rice planting seasons, Xia has used a very limited amount
of pesticides, about 20 per cent of the amount he applied before on the
same area of land.

Xia knows that the GM rice he has planted cannot be sold in the open
market because it has not yet been approved for commercialization.

This approval could increase Xia's income significantly, but depends on
the State Agricultural GM Crop Biosafety Committee. Technically the
decision-making body for commercialization of GM plants in China, the
committee is in charge of GM crop safety and is entrusted to evaluate GM
rice for research or marketing.

Forging ahead?

The committee, founded in 2001, stipulates that its members can only
serve five-year terms. The 50 members in the first committee mainly
consisted of GM crop researchers and quarantine experts.

In late June, the second group of the biosafety committee members were
appointed. There are 74 members, some of them bio-safety and
environmental scientists, according to the Ministry of Agriculture.

The Chinese Government approved the commercialization of genetically
modified cotton, tomato, pimiento and a species of morning glory in the
late 1990s.

So far, no country in the world has approved the commercialization of the
transgenic main grains, including wheat and rice, the staple food of
nearly half the world's population.

Peng Yufa, a member of the GM crop biosafety committee and chief
scientist at the biosafety research centre under the Beijing-based
Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences, said that new committee is not
dominated by agricultural biotech scientists, and promotes a more
cautious decision-making process towards commercializing GM grain, such
as rice.

However, in an interview with China Daily on the sidelines of a bio-
economic forum held in Beijing earlier this month, Zhang Wei, vice-
president of Weiming Kaituo Agricultural Biotech Co Ltd, said that he
hoped the new committee would provide a more scientific evaluation and
recommendation to help decision-makers to set the course for the future
of GM rice.

GM crops transplant genes from outside sources - often from other kinds
of crops or bacteria - into the crop. This helps increase insect-
resistance, salt and drought tolerance, and anti-herbicide and anti-crop
disease traits.

The most frequently used outside gene is derived from bacteria and
commonly called Bt, which makes crops produce a chemical that kills bollworms.

Insiders say the new committee is scheduled to meet in November. On the
agenda will be four varieties of GM rice that Chinese scientists have
developed - three insect-resistant varieties and another able to
withstand bacterial blight.

The four breeds have been going through pre-production safety evaluation
since December 2004. The committee's evaluation is the last step before
it is approved for commercialization.

"China's GM rice technologies are leading the world and they are very
mature for commercialization," said Zhen Zhu, a leading rice scientist
and the deputy director of the Bureau of Life Science and Biotechnology
of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS).

Zhu's team has successfully transplanted two anti-insect genes into rice.
Significant progress has also been made with developing drought- and
salt-tolerant varieties of GM rice, which are already in field trials.

"So far, many experiments have proved the transplanted genes are safe to
mammals," said Wu Changyin, a biotechnology researcher at Huazhong
Agricultural University, during an earlier interview with China Daily.

Take Bt gene as an example. Its toxicity only works in the alkaline
environment of insect's digestion system. It causes no harm in the acid
alimentary canals of mammals. In addition, its toxicity disappears at 50
degrees centigrade, which makes it safe to eat cooked rice.

The Bt gene has been tested for more than 20 years in other
commercialized GM crops such as soybean and does not show any specific
impact, Wu added.

In a recent research published in Science magazine, economist Huang
Jikun, director of CAS' Agricultural Policy Research Centre, and his
colleagues, revealed that insect-resistant GM rice reduces pesticide use
by 17 kilograms per hectare, or nearly 80 per cent of the original volume.

Meanwhile, the insect-resistant GM rice increases yield by 6-9 per cent.

Growing concerns

"It is not because insect-resistant GM rice naturally has a higher
output, but because for non-GM rice, farmers cannot spray pesticide
frequently enough, and thus insects eat up some of the yield despite the
pesticide use," said Huang.

Insect-resistant GM rice reduces the rate of pesticide-related illnesses
among farmers who grow rice, he added.

Last year, senior Chinese scientists recommended that policymakers give
the green light to commercialize GM rice, but the attempt was followed by
a series of publicly expressed concerns regarding its safety.

Sze Pang Cheung, a campaigner for Greenpeace China, said that researchers
in Europe have found that GM food might be a source of human allergies.

Chinese scientists at the Chinese Centre for Disease Control have tested
the safety of GM rice on mice and found no abnormal phenomenon in three
generations of mice in the past three years.

But Sze said that the duration experiment time was too short to reveal
any potential harm to human beings.

The bigger concerns come from environmental scientists.

Xue Dayuan, a scientist at the Nanjing Institute of Environmental
Sciences, told China Daily that if massively planted, GM rice might
release their transgenic genes into the environment, polluting other
species, especially the wild varieties of rice.

Wild rice is often crossbred with planted rice to improve traits. In
China, three of the 20 known varieties of wild rice have been found.

Zhang Yongjun, a senior research fellow at the Institute of Plant
Protection, said the target insects of GM crop may develop resistance to
the insect-resistant gene and become super pests.

While disputes over the biosafety measures of GM rice continue, some
groups of Chinese scientists have been trying other ways to improve rice

In July, Wu Ping, deputy dean of the College of Life Sciences of
Hangzhou-based Zhejiang University, led a team of researchers. They
published their findings in the US journal of Plant Physiology: a gene in
the crop itself which is able to reduce rice's reliance on phosphate

The gene can be used either through genetic engineering or traditional
crossbreeding aided with molecular marker seeding technology for
developing new varieties.

"Because this gene comes from rice itself, its will not pose any threat
to environmental safety," Wu said.

In a more recent attempt, researchers at Shanghai Institute for
Biological Sciences of CAS and the University of California, Berkeley,
identified a rice gene linked to salt tolerance from a Japanese rice
called Nona Bokra.

"Although some GM rice varieties able to tolerate high salt level have
undergone field trials in China, questions for their biosafety exist due
to their outsourced genes," said Lin Hongxuan, the lead researcher of the
Shanghai Institute for Biological Sciences. "Ours can be applied in the
downstream seeding process to develop salt-tolerant varieties of rice."

In Yunnan Province, rice researchers are trying to use the genetic
biodiversity of rice to prevent rice blast, a major rice disease. They
plant different varieties of rice in accordance with certain proportions.
This has significantly reduced the rate of rice blast.

"This research offers a way of thinking that we might not always rely on
outsourced genes and genetic modification to solve all crop problems,"
said researcher Li Chengyun of Yunnan Agricultural University.

Li Chuanyou, a scientist at the Institute of Genetics and Developmental
Biology of CAS, is trying to isolate the natural resistance of plants
against pests.

"In the long history of plant evolution, some natural pest resistance
traits have been developed, and if we can find them, the need for genetic
modification will reduce," Li said.

"Currently, my research is far from successful as compared with mature
genetic modification technologies, and more time and greater investment
might harvest some fruits in this area," Li said.


European NGO Network on Genetic Engineering

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