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China Suspends Commercialisation of Genetically Engineered Rice and Wheat

by Chee Yoke Ling

After several years of scientific and public debates it is reported that China will not commercialise genetically modified (GM) staple food crops such as rice and wheat for the next 5 to 10 years. The widely read Economic Observer, a financial weekly publication, citing a source close to the Ministry of Agriculture (MOA) confirmed this move in its 23 September 2011 issue: see Item 1 below.

Photo Courtesy: Cifor.org

This seems to be in line with the increased caution over GM technology that has reached the highest level of the government. At the Fourth International Biosafety Workshop in Beijing in April 2011 co-organised by several Chinese scientific organisations, a senior official of the Ministry of Environment in his opening speech said that Prime Minister Wen Jiabao has called for more caution on GMOs.

Uncertainty about the viability of the current GM technology is also raised as a key reason. The Economic Observer states that according to public reports, the GM rice Bt Shanyou 63 can increase yield by 8%. But the source person said that currently the GM seeds bred by domestic experts do not have “yield-increasing genes”. Because the GM crop is pest resistant, the “increased yieldt” is in fact the savings from pesticides cost counted as yield. It should be noted that Shanyou 63 was first developed in 1981 by a team of scientists at the Fujian Provincial Institute of Agricultural Science.

The policy decision not to commercialise GM rice will be reflected in the “Modern agricultural crop seed industry development Plan (2011-2020)” to be released this year. The plan is based on the 18 April report of the State Council (the Cabinet equivalent in China) titled “Views on accelerating the development of modern crop seed industry”. Interestingly, from the Economic Observer article it appears that GM is only briefly mentioned twice.

The exception that is under consideration for commercial planting is GM corn, and according to the Economic Observer article this is driven by the fact that corn imports are increasing rapidly and of the two varieties most widely grown, one variety developed domestically (not GM) may be facing new pests after several years of “peaking” in its production. GM corn and soya are currently imported for livestock feed and food processing but not approved for commercial cultivation.

When production safety certificates were given in November 2009 for two GM rice varieties and one GM corn variety it triggered heated discussion and debate within the scientific community and the public on the environmental and human safety of GM crops and products. The biosafety assessment itself had taken more than 5 years with rice being the most sensitive as it is the country’s main staple food.  Each safety production certification is usually geographically circumscribed (China has 28 provinces and autonomous regions, and 4 metropolitan areas as well as 2 Special Administrative Regions) and not for the entire country. So for example, the GM rice certificate was for one province only.

However such certification does not mean that commercial cultivation is allowed. This is reiterated in the Global Times article of 30 September below that stated, “A spokesperson with the MOA’s GM product safety department told the People’s Daily in 2010 that just because GM products have received a safety certificate does not mean they can be commercialized, and strict regional and production tests are obligatory before products reach the public.” (see Item 2 below and TWN Biosafety Info Service of 21 January 2010: GE rice in China: A step closer to commercialization?  )

Meanwhile, Chen Xiaohua, a deputy MOA minister in a Global Times report of 30 September pledged to ensure safety of GM crops amid scientists’ appeals for caution in commercializing such products (see Item 2 below).

The same report quoted Yuan Longping, a famous agricultural scientist in China known as the “father of hybrid rice,” who has repeatedly urged the government to proceed cautiously with any move to commercialize GM crops. “One of the major features of GM crops is their ability to resist insects, but even scientists do not know whether such an ability in these crops will have any effect on human beings,” Yuan told Nanfang Daily on 29 September.

Xue Dayuan of the Nanjing Research Institute of Environmental Sciences and chief biodiversity scientist of the Ministry of Environmental Protection, told the Global Times that authorities need to set up effective risk-evaluation and management mechanisms before commercializing GM products as some GM seeds are already circulating in the country, stressing that more more needs to be done in terms of supervision and management of GM technology.

The State Council’s April report cited in the Economic Observer article emphasizes the need to further standardize GM agricultural crop safety evaluation.

The government’s move to suspend commercialisation of major GM staple food crops has been reported widely and is welcomed by various groups in China. Greenpeace Food and Agriculture campaigner Pan Wenjing said that, “This step is a milestone in the process to end all GE (genetically engineered) rice commercialization in China” adding that genetically engineered crops’ long-term risks on human health and the environmental are still unknown. Pan said that it has also been found that many of the GE rice lines in China are embedded with non-Chinese patents, which poses a huge risk on China’s food security should they become commercialized.

In its press release on 25 September Greenpeace called on the government to re-assess its GE policy and its massive GE investments, and instead invest more resources into modern ecological agriculture and other effective technologies. The goal should be to speed up the transition of China’s agriculture to a sustainable, ecological model, for the sake of protecting the environment, ensuring food safety, and securing the economic livelihood of farmers.

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About the writer:

Chee Yoke Ling is a legal advisor to Third World Network, and coordinates the environmental programme of TWN. She received her LLB from the University of Malaya (Malaysia)and an LLM from Cambridge University (UK). After teaching public interest law courses at the University of Malaya, she went into full-time NGO work in 1989. She is actively involved in research and advocacy related to biotechnology and biosafety, intellectual property rights and community rights. She is also a consultant to the Malaysian Government on issues related to the implementation of the Convention on Biological Diversity, Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety and the WTO Agreement on Trade-related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights.

This article appeared today in the Biosafety Information Service of Third World Network

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Item 1

The report below is a rough translation of the 23 September 2011 issue of the Economic Observer, a widely read financial weekly publication in China.

Commercialization of genetically modified staple food: not to proceed for 5 years except for corn

by Jiang Yunzhang

A source close to the Ministry of Agriculture (MOA), told the Economic Observer  that the government will not promote the commercialization of genetically modified rice and wheat for five to ten years.  A “Modern agricultural crop seed industry development plan (2011-2020)” to be released this year already reflects such a policy orientation.

The source said that there are two reasons for this delay in commercialization of genetically modified (GM) staple food crops: one is that there has been a lot of questioning about the safety of genetic modification from various sides; the other is based on the judgement that currently in China, GM staple food crop-related research, promotion, regulations, even later-stage business operation,etc. are not yet mature.

However, the same source also revealed that due to the drastic increase of demand for corn, putting pressure on national researves, corn breeding technology will be at a historical turning point. In the next 5-10 years, GM corn commercilization may be pushed forward when appropriate.

On 18 April the State Council released a report titled “Views on accelerating the development of modern crop seed industry”. In this report GM was mentioned only in two places in a brief manner: one is on the need to “push forward the implementation of the major project on cultivation of GM new varieties”; the other is to emphasize the need to further standardize “GM agricultural crop safety evaluation and cross-regional introduction of different varieties’ seeds.”

(Note: Approvals for planting under China’s regulatory framework are given for specific provinces and not nation-wide. See also the article below from Global Times: “Ministry seeks to ease GM food safety fears.)

Ma Shuping, deputy director of the MOA division on cultivation, publicly said that according to the requirements made by the State Council Report on the principles and orientation of the development of China’s seed industry, MOA will formulate and improve various policy documents related to future seed industry development, among which the most important one is to formulate a “modern agriculutral crop seed industry development plan (2011-2020)”. She furthered said that the Plan is the concretization and detailing of the State Council Report. In the plan, MOA will propose the main tasks and goals in the next 10 years of development of the the seed industry according to crop, variety, and region.

The Economic Observer learnt that since last year, MOA has been organizing experts to formulate the Plan. Now after many rounds of consultations and modifications, the Plan is basically finalized, and will be released within this year. The previously-mentioned source person close to the senior levels of MOA said to the Economic Observer, that the Plan proposes the main tasks and goals in the next 10 years’ development of the seed industry according to crop, variety, and region, but GM rice, wheat, corn, soybean,and other grain crops are NOT included.

This source person said domestically some experts have been involved in numerous controversies of the GM rice and corn varieties that received MOA biosafety certifcates in 2009. The focus of the controversy is that, many experts think these two GM rice and corn varieties have shortcomings with respect to breeding technology innovation based on which domestic companies will find great difficulty in coming up with commercially-viable GM rice and corn varieties within 5 years.

In the seminar on GM agricultural crops commercialization held by the State Council in May, breeding expert Tongpinya of the China Agricultural Science Insitute pointed out that Bt Shanyou 63, developed by Prof. Zhangqifa of  Huazhong Agricultural University is simply the “retired” variety (non-GM) Shanyou 63 injected with a pest resistant gene.

According to some sources, Shanyou 63 (a hybrid rice variety) was developed by the team led by breeding expert Xie HuaAn in Fujian Provincial Institute of Agricultual Science in 1981, and received national awards. A few years ago Shanyou 63 was entirely retired from the market.

According to public reports, Bt Shanyou 63 can increase yield by 8%. But this source person said that currently the GM seeds bred by domestic experts do not have “yield-increasing genes”. Because the GM crop is pest resistant, the “increased yield” is in fact the savings from pesticides cost counted as yield.

According to the predictions of agriculural departments, in the next 10 years and even longer, China’s rice, wheat and corn production will steadily increase. Demand for rice and wheat  is gradually decreasing but due to consumers’ demand for meat/egg/milk, demand for corn is getting higher. Officials in the field of agriculutral regulations have worries that in the future years Chinese corn will follow the example of soya bean.

(Note: The increase of soya bean imports is a matter of concern in the country.)?

~ According to statistics from the China Grain and Oil Information Centre, last year on soya bean, China’s reliance for imports was 78%. Also last year China became a net importer of corn, after years of being a net exporter. Since corn is a staple food in many countries, China’s imports have cause for alarm around the world.

~ According to the “National 12th five-year plan of the development of cultivation industry” that MOA released on 20 September, China must reach 100% self-sufficiency in rice, wheat and corn — the 3 main staple food crops. Most people working in the industry believe that the target is attainable for rice and wheat, but that self-sufficiency in corn will be very difficult to achieve.

Senior analyst JIaoshanwei from China Grain net (www.cngrain.com) said there are only two ways to acheive self-sufficiency of corn. One way is to greatly increase planted area, and secondly is to increase yield. The possibily of the first option basically can be ruled out judging from the realistic situation currently in the country. In the short term the possibility of breeding and promoting high-yield corn variety is also slim.

According to the Economic Observer’s investigation, currently the two corn varieties that are planted the most in the country are “Zhendan 958″ and “Xianyu 335″.  Zhendan 958 was developed by domestic experts in the 1990s. Xianyu 335 is the variety promoted in China by Dupont in 2004. Many breeding experts estimate that after many years of “peaking”, Zhendan 958 might very possibly suffer from new pests and thus be “retired” from the market rather early. By then domestic corn production can only rely on Xianyu 335. This lack of diversity for domestically-bred quality corn variety forms a significant threat to China’s future grain security.

~ The source person also said there is another realistic reason for GM corn commercialization to be possibly pushed foward rather fast as it is  different from rice and wheat, GM corn is mostly used as animal feed or primary material for food products, and very little is consumed directly by humans. Thus the government would face little obstruction when pushing the commercilization of GM corn.

~The source person also said that relevant parties will further strengthen research on GM corn technology, to come up with better GM corn varieties as soon as possible.

===============================================================

Item 2

Ministry seeks to ease GM food safety fears

By Liu Linlin (Global Times, China)

30 September 2011

The Ministry of Agriculture (MOA) on Thursday pledged to ensure safety of genetically modified (GM) crops amid scientists’ appeals for caution in commercializing such products.

“We will develop GM technologies in strict accordance with relevant regulations and ensure the safety of GM products,” Chen Xiaohua, a deputy MOA minister, told reporters on Thursday responding to questions on the import of GM corn from the US.

“China will continue its development of GM crops because this is an important strategic move for the whole nation,” Chen said, adding that the ministry is drawing up plans to expand corn production to meet increasing domestic demand.

According to caixin.cn, China National Cereals, Oils and Foodstuffs Corporation imported 61,000 tons of GM corn in July 2010.

In November 2009, the MOA issued a production safety certificate to two varieties of GM rice and one of GM corn, the first such case in the country. The move sparked long-running debates about the safety of GM foods and their impact on the environment.

The three main issues surrounding GM foods according to the World Health Organization are their potential for provoking allergic reactions, transferring harmful genes to the human body and crossbreeding with other plants.

Yuan Longping, a famous agricultural scientist known as the “father of hybrid rice,” has repeatedly urged the government to proceed cautiously with any move to commercialize GM crops.

“One of the major features of GM crops is their ability to resist insects, but even scientists do not know whether such an ability in these crops will have any effect on human beings,” the Nanfang Daily quoted Yuan as saying on Thursday.

“So far scientists have only conducted tests on animals, which does not rule out risks for humans in the long term,” he said, adding that crops that have been genetically modified to increase production might be safe.

However, Gu Xiulin, a professor with Yunnan University of Finance and Economics who studies the impact of GM crops, noted that aside from health concerns GM foods may not even help increase production.

“Western studies found that in some cases, insects and weeds became resistant to GM crops’ ability to kill them, thus affecting production. There are also reports that GM foods could cause infertility in humans,” Gu said.

“More alarming is that some GM foods or other commodities made from GM products have already reached the domestic market. For example, about 20 percent of corn grown in China is genetically modified,” Gu said, adding that the government should adopt a more vigilant attitude toward the technology.

A spokesperson with the MOA’s GM product safety department told the People’s Daily in 2010 that just because GM products have received a safety certificate does not mean they can be commercialized, and strict regional and production tests are obligatory before products reach the public.

The GM organisms, also known as ‘transgenic’ organisms, were developed in the 1970s. At present, genetically modified crops are grown on 134 million hectares of land worldwide.

US farmers adopted genetically engineered crops widely since their commercial introduction in 1996, notwithstanding uncertainty about consumer acceptance and economic and environmental impacts, the US Department of Agriculture said in a statement.

Currently, commercialized GM crops in the US include soy, cotton, canola, corn, Hawaiian papaya, zucchini and yellow squash, and sugar beets.

In Canada, four GM crops are under cultivation: corn, canola, soy and white sugar beet. The EU is much more cautious about the technology and has issued a series of bans on such products, the latest of which banned GM-tainted food from general sale earlier this month.

The American Academy of Environmental Medicine reported in 2009 that several animal studies indicated serious health risks associated with GM foods, including infertility, immune problems, accelerated aging, faulty insulin regulation and changes in major organs and the gastrointestinal system.

The academy asked physicians to advise patients to avoid GM foods.

Xue Dayuan, an expert on transgenosis at the Nanjing Research Institute of Environmental Sciences, told the Global Times that authorities need to set up effective risk-evaluation and management mechanisms before commercializing GM products as some GM seeds are already circulating in the country.

“It is true that the GM technology is crucial for China’s agricultural development, but compared with advances in the technology, more needs to be done in terms of supervision and management,” Xue said.

Citing an MOA insider, the Shenzhen Economic Daily reported that authorities would slow down its GM crops development over the next decade, especially for GM rice, wheat and soybeans, but corn might be an exception.

(Zhu Shanshan contributed to this story.)

 

Further Links You May Be Interested In:

EWTT:  Lim Li Ching: GMO Free
EWTT:  India’s GM Bill: Anti-people, Anti-nature
EWTT: Go GM Free in Australia
EWTT:  Better labelling of GM Food in Singapore essential
EWTTDr Vandana Shiva: Traditional Knowledge, Biodiversity and Sustainable Development
EWTTDr Mira Shiva: Health Effects of GM Food

 

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Posted by on Oct 6 2011. Filed under Agriculture/Food, Biodiversity & Ecosystems, China, World. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

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