Food concerns prompt China to prioritise GM rice

July 17th, 2008 - 9:58 am ICT by IANS  

Bill Smith
Beijing, July 17 (DPA) China’s leaders decided in early July to go all out to develop genetically modified organisms (GMOs), prompted by rising prices and concerns that the nation of 1.3 billion people may become more reliant on expensive exports. Premier Wen Jiabao led a meeting of the cabinet which said the development of GMOs was of “great strategic significance to strengthening innovation in agricultural technology, lifting the level of plant cultivation, promoting higher efficiency and yield, and raising the nation’s international competitiveness in agriculture”.

“All relevant departments should fully realize the significance and urgency of this important project, further perfect the programme and actively implement it,” the government said in a report on the meeting.

Agricultural scientists at China’s Zhejiang University announced in March that they had developed a way to create “selectively terminable” GM rice, a breakthrough which they hope will lead to the industrialisation of GM rice seeds.

The scientists said the pest- and disease-resistant GM rice plants could easily be killed through genetically conditioned high sensitivity to a specific herbicide, eliminating concerns about them becoming wild or cross-pollinating with normal rice plants.

The Zhejiang project’s lead scientist, Shen Zhicheng, said genetic modification was the best way to increase food production and played down fears that experimental plants could be secretly used for mass production or mixed with unmodified varieties.

“It is certain to increase the yield of grain crops and is an effective way of solving price issues,” Shen said of his team’s GMO work.

“I hope the country will increase its determination to use the new technology,” he told DPA.

“If there is not enough rice to eat, it is right to try every method to solve the problem by pushing technology,” Shen said.

The third-largest country by land area possesses only 7 percent of the world’s cultivated land from which to feed one-fifth of the global population.

It already allows farmers to grow GM peppers, tomatoes and papaya, and it imports large quantities of GM soybeans, mainly from the US.

In the non-food sector, most of China’s cotton seed is genetically modified.

Concerns mounted over the possibility of GM rice creeping into food markets after environmental group Greenpeace blew the whistle on illegal sales of GM rice developed by scientists in the central province of Hubei in 2005.

Greenpeace later said it found GM rice being sold by wholesalers in the southern city of Guangzhou, close to Hong Kong.

On a visit to China last year, Markos Kyprianou, the European Commissioner for Health, highlighted unauthorised use of the GM rice known as Bt63 in Chinese exports.

The EU introduced an emergency measure in April requiring Chinese food exports containing rice to be laboratory-certified as free of Bt63, citing a “failure on the part of Chinese authorities to provide… control samples and a protocol of detection method.”

But Xue Dayuan, a senior researcher at the Nanjing Institution of Environmental Science, said the government had improved its controls.

“GM crops are seldom planted in China, so we have no conditions for an escape,” Xue said.

“Now they are in an experimental period in limited areas, and not industrialised,” he said.

Shen said agriculture ministry officials inspected his project regularly.

“Our research farm is properly isolated and we dare not let this experimental rice escape, otherwise we will have to take huge responsibility,” he said.

Hybrid rice, which the government has actively developed since the 1950s, has already brought China’s rice yields close to those of Japan and is likely to continue as an important element of agricultural technology.

“My view is that we should develop GM rice and hybrid rice simultaneously,” Shen said.

The government aims to keep annual grain production over 500 million tonnes to 2010 and raise it to about 540 million tonnes by 2020.

Agricultural official Chen Yao recently said this year’s target for rice production was 185.7 million tonnes, up by 0.1 percent from 2007.

Food prices have risen by around 20 percent this year, helping to fuel inflation of about 8 percent in the consumer price index.

Rising international grain and oil prices were a major factor behind the inflation, government economist Yin Jianfeng told state media in June.

Biofuel also made brief inroads into grain production for food, bringing more inflationary pressure, before the government stepped in.

“In the past some corn was used to make biofuel, (but) it did not reach the scale where it affected food prices, like in Brazil and America,” Xue said.

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