“If food security cannot be ensured, no one can help us,” warns China’s outgoing Minister of Agriculture Sun Zhengcai.
His concern: climate change and shrinking arable land are both threatening China’s ability to keep society “harmonious” by feeding it. That’s why genetically modified (GM) crops could soon form an important part of the country’s food policy. But it’s a move that critics are calling a dangerous experiment.
Rice is the first major staple to get a GM stamp of approval. Two strains of “Bt rice” were recently certified bio-safe – i.e. fit for human consumption – and will now undergo further farm testing. Commercial cultivation is 2-3 years away.
China is almost self-sufficient in rice, and the government wants the new rice strains to help keep it that way. By 2020, consumption is expected to rise 26% to 630 million tonnes. That’s a lot of extra rice. There’s a precedent for the government’s concerns: last year it had to restrict grain exports when food prices soared worldwide.
The DNA of the new rice strains contains genes taken from the common soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis. These genes produce toxins that make the rice pest-resistant (and require less pesticide). This means less manual work for the farmer, and should also lower the risk of pesticide chemicals leaching into the water supply.
That at least is the theory. A 2006 study found that Bt cotton farmers in China had to spend just as much on pesticides to deal with new insects that had replaced the plant’s traditional pests. Another study released by scientists in the US last year revealed that pests can also evolve resistance to the toxin in Bt cotton.
Chinese botany expert Jiang Gaoming doubts GM crops can deliver long-term food security. “GM technology only has a role to play where fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides are used heavily,” explains the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Botany Professor. He says that while industrial farming may need less labour, it forces peasants off the land and diminishes water and soil quality in the long run.
Farmer advocacy groups are also concerned that GM crops are impoverishing small farmers. In China, Bt cotton seeds cost three times more than natural varieties.
The new Bt rice strains were developed by Huazhong Agricultural University, and are reportedly linked to 11 foreign patents. Approval for GM seed development in China is currently restricted to domestic seed companies, like Nasdaq-listed Origin Agritech, developers of China’s first GM corn.
In 1958, Chairman Mao’s “anti-sparrow campaign” succeeded in decimating the sparrow population, only to find that the birds were needed to control locusts. And environmentalists fear a similar danger from GM crops. “[They] may threaten so-called non-target organisms, such as bees, butterflies or soil microbes,” according to US-based green group National Resources Defense Council.
There’s also a danger the gene pool will shrink if a highly successful variety of GM rice cross-pollinates with wild rice. Southern China is the birthplace of rice cultivation, and the area remains an important natural storehouse of wild strains of rice.
Environmental group Greenpeace China is also concerned about the potential impact of Bt rice on the food chain. In a recent press release it has complained that the Ministry of Agriculture has not disclosed any information about the health studies involved in the certification process, and warns that new GM strains could cause “irreversible genetic pollution”.
A 2002 regulation only requires labelling for products containing GM tomato, soy, corn and rape seed. In 2005 Greenpeace discovered that a Bt rice strain linked to allergic reactions in mice (and thus potentially humans) was being grown in Hubei province. Although its potential benefits are contentious, the future of GM rice in China is not. Premier Wen Jiabao is banking on the technology to feed a growing and increasingly affluent population. “I strongly advocate making great efforts to pursue transgenic engineering,” he told Science magazine recently, “The recent food shortages around the world have further strengthened my belief.”
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