News & Events

Stricter rules needed on GMOs

By He Sheng
China Daily, July 19, 2004 

Chinese scientists are calling for stricter regulations on genetically modified organisms (GMO) in China, saying the spread of the GMOs has become so rapid that the government must work out effective measures to minimize any possible risks they may pose to human health and the environment.

Xue Dayuan, a biologist at the Nanjing Institute of Environmental Science, in East China's Jiangsu Province, and chief organizer of an international symposium on GMO safety in Beijing held on July 10 and 11, voiced his concern at the symposium about the lax regulation of both GMO experiments and the sale of GM crops in China.

While scientists and policy-makers were still debating whether China should introduce a GM labeling system to keep the public on alert only three years ago, it now seems to be a past issue, Xue said.

"It would definitely not surprise me to hear that everyone attending this gathering ate something genetically modified in their lunch today," Xue said, half-jokingly, at an afternoon session of the symposium.

Public awareness

When media reports came out three years ago that the central government of China was mulling over a regulation governing GMOs, it still was a concept the public knew next to nothing about.

Yet, in only three years, GMOs have touched the lives of many Chinese people.

Housewives in shopping malls in Beijing looking for inexpensive cooking oil nowadays find that they have very few options other than cooking oils made from genetically modified soybeans or corn.

Almost all major brands, such as Fu Lin Men and Arawana (Jinlongyu), declare on their labels that their cooking oil contains GM materials.

The spread of GM crops and foods has been so rapid in China over the past few years that concern about their health risks has spilled over from the academic into the public sphere.

Sometimes, some consumers hesitate to buy such products out of perceived safety concerns.

The international environmental group Green Peace, conducted a public survey in February this year. A random survey of 600 consumers in major Chinese cities - including Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou - found that 34 per cent of those surveyed said they preferred not to eat such foods, and 70 per cent said they believe that some foods contain genetically modified components which are not identified.

Chinese scientists, while sounding the alarm, have been carrying out experiments on a variety of GM crops to assess their possible effect on, if not risk to, human health, the environment and the ecology in the country.

"It is now not a question of 'should we', but 'how should we'," said Xue, when talking about the regulation of GMOs in China.

In fact, as early as the late 1980s, Chinese scientists at various levels began to carry out genetic engineering research on almost all major crops.

More and more researchers and funds were involved in this area in the 1990s, when biology was regarded by China's science authorities as the most promising area for scientific breakthroughs.

Genetically modified organisms had been created in labs even before the central government worked out rules governing the research, let alone the commercialization of the findings.

"Basically, researchers could carry out experiments on their own on almost any plant species they were interested in at that time," Xue said. "The concern about GMO risks to human health and the environment was understood by the researchers but for many of them these risks were not their primary concern.

"The main factors governing their conduct, to be frank, were their research ethics and their own consciences."

Extensive research

In fact, the number of genetically modified plant species created by Chinese scientists may be much higher than the general public might expect.

For instance, more than 130 types of foreign wheat genes have been tried on native wheat genes, wheat being the most widely grown crop in China, and 49 foreign genes have been successfully inserted into native wheat genes, according to Xiao Xingguo, a researcher from the Institute of Biology of Beijing Agriculture University.

Xiao said the first genetically modified wheat in the world was created by Chinese scientists in 1990, ushering in more such work in the following years.

More than 50 labs throughout the country are known to be doing research in this area now, Xiao said.

Two GM wheat types have passed provincial-level examination and at least five to eight types are expected to go through testing in the real environment in the next five years, he added.

Rice has been engineered, too. At least 10 GM rice field trials are expected to be completed between 2001 and 2005, with the ultimate aim of commercial application, according to Guo Longbiao, a leading rice scientist with China National Rice Research Institute in Hangzhou, in East China's Zhejiang Province.

And with rape seed, the major source of edible oil, particularly in southern China, at least 70 Chinese institutes are now experimenting with a variety of foreign genes, with one already awaiting approval for commercial use.

"Research on GMOs in China has been growing at a speed probably higher than that in any other area in China," said Han Tianfu, another researcher from the University of Agriculture. "Some of it has been and is being done without strict regulation or licensing.

"That makes risk control a tough job," he added.

GM poplar trees are a case in point. Chinese scientists began to develop a pest-resistant GM poplar in the early 1990s and carried out field tests in the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region of Northwest China.

Yet a regulatory issue arose, as the licensing of field tests of GM plants has customarily been conducted by the GMO Safety Office under the Ministry of Agriculture. But the State Forestry Bureau is also supposed to have regulatory power in this area, at least in part.

"If you define the GM plant in the experiment as a 'crop,' you may have to apply for a licence with the Ministry of Agriculture," Xue said. "If you define it as a 'tree,' you may not necessarily go to this ministry."

The poplar experiment in Xinjiang, he said, has been carried out without licence from the Ministry of Agriculture, yet the State Forestry Bureau still has no equivalent licensing system.

"There is urgent need for co-ordination between the two government bodies," he said, adding that most of the public concern has been focused on GM crops rather than GM trees.

Imported GMOs

Aside from its full-fledged research on GMOs, China remains the world's largest importer of GM soybeans, accounting for 30 per cent of the total trade in the international market. More than 70 per cent of China's imported soybeans are genetically modified, according to experts attending the conference.

After the GM soybeans entered China, however, efforts to prevent the imports from contaminating indigenous plants remain lax.

According to Xue, most of the soybeans imported are used to produce cooking oil at foreign invested refineries in the coastal areas, where inspection and control may prove beyond the capability of the small number of officials and experts from the GMO Safety Office.

Xue voiced his concern that some of the soybeans may have entered regions other than those of the oil producers, raising the risk of gene pollution.

Scientists have found that natural plants can be genetically altered by GM plants by such means as gene flow or gene escape. Pollens have proved an ideal gene carrier in the process.

Wild soybeans, for instance, may have their characteristics altered if planted together with GM soybeans. In the long run, the diversity of soybeans may be damaged.

Many scientists that attended the symposium presented the results of their experiments on gene flow or gene escape.

A field investigation of northeastern China, the largest soybean-growing region in China, found no trace of GM soybeans nor any evidence of effects on local soybeans so far.

Another experiment in GM poplars, however, has found gene flow between the GM varieties and the natural ones growing beside them in Xinjiang.

Similar results were also found with GM rice, which has become the focus of debate recently among scientists, as several GM rice varieties have been created by Chinese scientists and are waiting approval for commercial use.

It seems to be just a matter of time, Xue said, and whether people like it or not, GM products are here to stay.