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Is it Proper for China to Grow GM Rice Now? - Evidence Versus Raw Emotion

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China's Biosafety Committee in the Ministry of Agriculture has granted safety certificates for the domestic production of two kinds of rice genetically engineered to resist pests. China already allows the production of pest-resistant genetically engineered cotton, but the latest move toward approving a major genetically engineered food crop is stirring controversy.

Political misgivings about genetically engineered foods first emerged in Europe when the first shipments of genetically engineered soybeans reached there from the United States in 1996. At that exact moment, Europe was in the grips of a major food safety scare over an unrelated problem known as "mad cow disease", undercutting consumer confidence in the European regulators who had said the soybeans were safe to eat.

Fifteen years have now passed and there is still no documented evidence of any new harm from genetically engineered food, but European activist groups (led by Greenpeace International, from Amsterdam) continue to campaign against the technology, including now in China.

What these activists do not admit is that Europe's top scientists have long since found today's genetically engineered foods to be just as safe as conventional foods. This is also the official position of the International Council for Science (ICSU), Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in Paris, World Health Organization and the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization.

It is revealing that while Europeans generally do not like the use of genetic engineering in agriculture, they have no objection to its use in medicine. They don't like genetic engineering in food because they are already well fed (indeed, overfed) without the technology. It is Europe's lack of a need for this technology, not the presence of any new risk, which has been behind the protests.

China should make a decision on this technology based on the needs of its farmers and consumers. Critics wrongly assert that genetically engineered crops are more likely than conventional crops to result in pesticide-resistant insects or invasive super-weeds, an assertion rejected authoritatively by the ICSU.

A second favorite charge is that pollen from genetically engineered crops will kill butterfly larvae, even though studies conducted by the US Environmental Protection Agency found this risk to be "negligible" under actual field conditions. Another bogus yet widely circulated charge is that genetically modified organism (GMO) crops contain "terminator genes", which render the seeds sterile, a ridiculous assertion given that the technology was originally spread to Brazil and India by individual farmers who freely replicated and replanted the seeds.

It has been asserted that GMO crops are so prone to failure that they have driven small cotton farmers deep into debt. This is a laughable charge in China, where small farmers have been planting these new varieties with nothing but commercial success since 1997 .

Activists have also raised a number of bogus food safety concerns about genetically engineered crops. Without any supporting experimental evidence activists try to argue that eating GMO foods will transfer antibiotic resistance genes into the human body. They now point to a study done in Austria in 2008 purporting to find lower reproduction rates among mice that had been fed with genetically engineered corn, even though the Scientific Panel on Genetically Modified Organisms of the European Union reviewed the study and found multiple errors which nullified the conclusions.