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2-Plants: China moves towards approval of GM rice

------------------------------- GENET-news -------------------------------

TITLE:  China moves towards approval of GM rice
SOURCE:, USA, by Tamara Vantroyen
DATE:   21 Feb 2006

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China moves towards approval of GM rice

In spite of prevailing official caution, the prospect of reversing a
steady decline in total rice production and reducing the use of
pesticides which poison hundreds of farmers each year are likely to
prove compelling factors as China weighs up the pros and cons of
genetically modified rice. Tamara Vantroyen reports.

China looks to be a likely candidate for the first country in the world
to approve genetically modified rice, despite the fact that the State
Agricultural GM Crop Biosafety Committee, a technical body that
evaluates GM research, did not approve the idea at its three-day meeting
in Beijing late last year. Caution seems to be the order of the day,
largely because opposition to GM rice crops is much stronger than for
cotton and feed crops like corn.

But in China, non-approved GM rice has already made an appearance.
Greenpeace uncovered the cultivation of GM rice in Hubei province in
early- 2005. At the time local farmers knew little about the risks of
planting the genetically modified crop, which is why a more cautious
approach is being taken to the biotechnology's official approval.

But assuming that financial considerations eventually overcome
environmental scruples, what effect would GM rice have on the rice
industry in China? Given that the Chinese central government is setting
aside US$1bn to hasten the commercial release of GM rice, the effect is
likely to be significant to say the least. One of the main attractions
of modified rice is that it gives higher yields and would therefore help
the problem of food shortages China might face if its rice production
continues to dwindle. Rice prices are up 27% in China this year because
of reduced production. Rice output has fallen from 198.5m tons in 1999
to 179m tons in 2004, according to agriculture ministry statistics.

Pollution, irrigation with industrial and domestic sewage, long term use
of chemical compounds and the improper disposal of animal waste from
farmland have all contributed to China's dwindling rice production.
Pollution in particular gives serious cause for concern. China's farming
areas are suffering from water, soil and atmospheric emissions, which
has been termed "agricultural tri-dimension pollution". Of the total
land that has been polluted in China, farmland accounts for about one sixth.

As a result, one potentially beneficial effect GM rice would have on the
rice industry in China is that it would help reduce the use of
pesticides which are themselves creating more pollution. Those who stand
to benefit the most from a higher rice yield and a reduction in
pesticide usage are the Chinese farmers themselves. Pesticides in China
are cheap but poison around 50,000 farmers a year, around 500 of them
fatally, according to a study led by Dr Jikun Huang and published in the
US journal Science.

There is also the matter of cost. Agrifood Awareness Australia conducted
a case study with Xia Guoyuan, a 40-year-old farmer, when he was
selected in 2004 to plant pest-resistant GM rice in a scientific trial.
According to Xia, he was able to save almost US$10 on pesticides, which
account for about 30% of his total costs, for each mu or 0.065 hectares
of rice.

According to Gurdev Singh Khush, a consultant at the International Rice
Research Institute (IRRI), insect-resistant rice followed by disease-
resistant rice are the two types of GM rice likely to be the first to
make their appearance on the market in China. Insect-resistant or Bt
rice is resistant to the corn borer pest, which is a leading destroyer
of corn crops in China. Bacterial leaf blight is one of the most
devastating rice diseases in China and disease-resistant rice would be
immune to it.

Until the production of GM rice is formally approved, the Ministry of
Agriculture has asked 12 grain-producing provinces, of which the five
largest are Guangdong, Fujian, Hunan, Hubei and Sichuan, to raise output
by sowing a combined 4m hectares of super rice - a strain of rice
developed by researcher Yuan Longping who has been honoured with the
title "China's Father of Super Rice" - this year. According to the
Ministry of Agriculture, super strains can produce up to 13.5 tons per
hectare compared with an average 6.5 tons per hectare for conventional
seeds. That this is being taken seriously is illustrated by the fact
that 20 leading super rice strains will be cultivated over a period of
six years from 2005 onwards, and will be sown over 8.52m hectares,
representing some 30% of China's total paddy fields.


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