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Chinese Green Light for GM Rice and Maize Prompts Outcry

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Hepeng Jia,  Nature Biotechnology, May 2010, v. 28, p 390-391

'China's homegrown GM rice could soon reach local markets, but critics are voicing strong concerns over the nation's staple crop.'

Biosafety certificates for genetically modified (GM) rice and maize issued by the Chinese Ministry of Agriculture late last year have prompted a protest from over a hundred intellectuals and prominent public officials. This represents one of the most high-profile challenges to China's aggressive policy for the adoption of transgenic crops. Even so, proponents of the technology say that opposition is likely neither to block the path to commercialization of GM rice nor to stall development of an approach that Chinese government officials have long recognized as a key to addressing the country's growing demand for food.

In early March, 120 Chinese scholars-mostly in the areas of humanity and social science-signed a public petition asking the Ministry of Agriculture to withdraw the two safety licenses issued last November. The petition, presented during the annual plenary meeting of China's legislature, the National People's Congress, was reinforced by a motion from the Zhigong Party, chaired by China's Science Minister Wan Gang. The motion, introduced to the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, China's Upper House, urges a cautious approach to GM crop development. <cut>

But opponents of GM technology refuse to accept such reassurances. What's more, there appears to be confusion about the significance of the biosafety certificates. Critics are failing to distinguish between the green light for
field-testing, and the go-ahead to commercialize. Thus, the petition states "the approval for the commercialization of GM rice and maize enables China to become the world's first country to plant a GM staple food, threatening the national safety." But the certificates issued so far are only for field trials assessing safety; further studies would be needed before commercial release would be considered (and, in any case, China would not be the first country to plant a GM staple given that the US has been planting Bt maize for the past 15 years).

Apart from the precautionary concerns over the impact of GM varieties on human and environmental health, opponents argue that transgenic rice and maize represent a threat to small-holding farmers in China. "In the cases of commercialized GM crops, most of the benefits go to big GM seeding companies, such as Monsanto, and farmers remain losers because they have no other choices and they cannot obtain conventional non-GM seeds," says Lifeng Fang, an anti-GM campaigner of Beijing-based Greenpeace China.

But studies assessing the benefits, especially increased yields, associated with commercialized varieties of Bt cotton and Bt maize in developing countries have overwhelming demonstrated benefits for small farmers (Nat. Biotechnol. 28, 319-321, 2010). And according to the annual report of the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA; New York), Bt rice has the potential to create an estimated benefit of $4 billion per year for up to 440 million rice farmers in China; similarly, maize engineered to express phytase could enable savings on livestock feed and reduce pollution from undigested phosphorous.

Evidence on the ground also indicates that Chinese farmers are receptive to GM technology. Since its approval in 1997, Bt cotton has been adopted to the extent that by 2009, 68% of the total cotton planted in China was transgenic. And even though this represented a slight reduction in the area of transgenic cultivation over the previous year-to 3.7 million hectares compared with 3.8 million hectares in 2008-Ruifa Hu, a senior researcher at Beijing-based Centre for Chinese Agricultural Policies (CCAP), the Chinese Academy of Sciences, thinks this reflects recent economic and environmental conditions rather than a cooling reception for GM technology. "It is mainly a result of lower prices for cotton that have reduced the total planting area of the crop," he says. In addition, the cotton borer worm population, which is targeted by Bt varieties, has dropped significantly in recent years, and farmers may have opted to save money last year by planting conventional non-GM varieties. "The normal market and fluctuation in cultivation area will not impact the future commercialization of GM rice," Hu believes.

Additional concerns for GM varieties in China relate to admixture and outcrossing with conventional crops and to the pernicious stranglehold of Western multinationals like Monsanto and Basel-based Syngenta on intellectual property rights (IPR) covering transgenic technology. In terms of outcrossing, opponents are particularly concerned about the possibility that transgenic crops currently unauthorized for mass planting could transfer traits to conventional crops cultivated on farms or admix with them. Greenpeace reported in late March that the Bt protein had been detected in rice sold in Changsha, in southern China, through what is suspected to have been a release from the Central China University of Agriculture. Since 2005, similar reports have been repeatedly made by the environmental group Greenpeace. In the European market, rice imported from China has also been found to contain Bt ingredients
http://www.nature.com/news/2006/060904/full/news060904-5.html). Zhang admits that the unintentional flow of GM rice is possible. "In 1999, when there was no strict biosafety regulation and we had poor IPR awareness, some of our GM rice seed samples may have been stolen at a national scientific achievement show. It is possible that illegal plantations of GM rice could have resulted," Zhang told Nature Biotechnology.

Opponents say that the cultivation of unauthorized varieties of Bt rice is a sign of lax oversight, an indication that GM rice cannot be properly monitored and controlled once commercialized. "It could pollute nearby non-GM crops by outcrossing," says Dayuan Xue, a biodiversity professor at the Central University of Nationalities in Beijing.
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Protests against the lack of transparency in the decision process are flooding the Chinese media. For instance, the Ministry of Agriculture has admitted that the biosafety certificates for GM rice and corn had actually been issued a year before their formal announcement last November. The neutrality and credibility of scientists involved in the development of GM crops is also under scrutiny. Some are even being accused of pursuing their own financial interests, an allegation that Zhang disputes: "You cannot say doing research projects is for self-interest, as we cannot profit from commercialization because the IPR belongs to the state."

Despite increasing resistance to cultivation of GM crops in China, Huang of CAAS reveals that Chinese policymakers are likely to continue the push toward commercialization of GM rice. "Under pressure, there could be some pauses, but science should play its role," says Huang. The ripples from China's decisions are likely to be felt internationally. "We Asian nations are closely watching China. What China does [in GM crop commercialization], other nations will follow," says Bhagirath Choudhary, Delhi-based ISAAA Indian national coordinator.