News & Events

China to grow “safe” GM Rice

Reuters, Hong Kong 
Bangkok Post, March 11, 2005 

As early as this year, China could start commercial production of a new breed of genetically engineered rice.

If adopted, it would be the world’s first large-scale plantation of a major transgenic food crop and, some scientists say, would provide an environmentally friendly answer to food problems of the world’s poor.

But those who fear that genetically modified organisms (GMOs) present a danger to the natural crop balance say Beijing’s haste to develop the rice has more to do with a drive to bring the income levels of its farmers in line with others who have prospered more from China’s red-hot economic development.

Scientists in China, the world’s top rice producer and consumer, say Beijing is looking to mass-produce Xa21 rice, which contains a gene from an African wild rice.  But government officials have remained tight-lipped about plans to introduce any form of GMO rice.

The Xa21 strain, which was developed through publicly funded international research, is resistant to bacterial blight – one of the most serious crop diseases in Africa and Asia, which can cause devastating yield loss as it spreads through water droplets.

As it derives from a wild rice gene, it has emerged as the front-runner in the race to be the first GMO rice crop, ahead of insect-resistant BT rice, which contains a toxic bacterial gene.

The scientists day Beijing hopes Xa21 will help convince skeptics of the safety of GMOs, while moving China a step forward in its quest to become a global leader in biotechnology.

“Many scientists in China think the Xa21 rice is relatively safe for the environment and health, as its gene comes from a wild rice,” Dayuan Xue, professor at Nanjing Institute of Environmental Sciences, said.

Should China approve commercial production of rice, it would be the first time that the country had approved a large GMO project since 1999, when a global consumer outcry over the safety of genetically modified foods persuaded the government to stop.

It would also be in stark contrast to Monsanto Co’s decision last year to halt plans to intriduce the world’s first GMO wheat in Canada and the United States.

At present, herbicide-tolerant or insect-resistant soy, cotton, corn and rapeseed account for most of the GMOs grown commercially worldwide.  Of the four, China has allowed only GMO cotton.

Clive James, chairman of the ISAAA, a group with industry and public foundation support that promotes biotech as a way to halt global hunder, sees huge significance in China’s Xa21 project.

“In the near term, the one single event that is likely to have the greatest impact is the approval and aoption of…[GMO] rice in China,” he said in a 2004 report.

“That will herald a new chapter in the debate…which will be increasingly influenced by countries in the South (developing countries], where the new technology can contribute the biggest benefits and where humanitarian needs are greatest.”

Jia Shirong, a professor from the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences in Beijing, said that – after eight years of laboratory study and field trials – his team had applied to the government to start commercial output of Xa21 hybrid Japonica rice in the central province of Anhui, half the size of Italy.

“The field performance has been excellent,” Mr. Jia said in a telephone interview.  “Farmers can reduce yield losses and chemical use.  Our research data showed that the transgenic rice is as safe as the traditional rice.