by Antoaneta Bezlova
(IPS) BEIJING -- Beijing's leaders are under mounting pressure to approve the commercial release of genetically modified rice but they fear that the social cost and potential international backlash might cancel out any economic benefits.
Recent successful pre-production trials of GM rice in China have given leaders the scientific support they need to go ahead with the commercialization of the crop.
Farmers growing genetically altered rice in field trials have reported an increase in crop yields of 10 percent, with pesticide use down by 80 percent -- coupled with fewer pesticide-related health problems.
"One of major reasons that commercialization has not proceeded so far is that there has been little independent evidence on whether GM food crops would really improve farmers' incomes and rice productivity, said Prof. Huang Jikun, the agricultural researcher who spearheaded the field study.
The results of the study published in the April issue of 'Science' have placed China on the verge of approving GM rice for commercial use. No country has done that yet, with an important food grain like rice, and China's decision could influence the future of GM crops in the rest of the world.
Yet despite the positive outlook, industry insiders suggest that the government's decision about commercial release is not imminent and the earliest when GM rice may enter the food chain would be in 2007.
"It is not such an easy step to be taken," said one foreign executive involved in China's agribusiness. "Chinese leaders are concerned that a great increase in rice output can push prices down and drive peasants away from the land. There is also the opposition from domestic fertilizer companies that stand to loose if the pest-resistant rice is popularized."
While initial studies suggest wide cultivation of GM rice will result in boosted yields and reduced pesticide use, government officials have fears about the social implications of commercialising the new crop.
Rapid urbanization in China over the past two decades has resulted in millions of poor Chinese quitting their farming plots in search for better paying jobs in the cities. Millions more have stopped growing grain because it is not longer profitable.
Trying to reverse these trends, the central government has slashed rural taxes and made farming more attractive to peasants. There's also the hope that rising grain prices will lure farmers back to the land.
While rural incomes have risen by more than 10 percent this year, undercurrent tensions in the countryside are still simmering and could easily resurface.
One trigger could be a dramatic increase in rice output that would depressprices and put the brakes on the recovery trend.
Estimates about the effects of the new rice on yields differ significantly. The most recent study published in 'Science' concludes that there would be a 10 percent increase in yields. But Chinese scientists have spoken about as much as 20 percent increase in rice output.
A strong lobby of some 2,000 domestic fertilizer firms has also resisted the change, arguing that commercial cultivation of GM rice would result in job losses and reduced tax revenues.
China has tested two genetically modified rice strains -- the Shanyou 63, created to be resistant against the rice stem borer and leaf roller, and the Youming 86, another insect-resistant variety. When both GM strains were grown in field trials in individual farms, it was found that farmers used 80 percent less pesticide as compared to conventional varieties.
"The performance of insect-resistant GM rice in trials has been impressive," said Prof. Hung who is also the director of the Center for Chinese Agricultural Policy at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
Despite opposition at various levels though, the central government is under too much pressure to realize domestic gains from the GM rice commercialization to delay its decision for too long.
Proving that the nation can feed its growing population has become a legitimacy test for every new generation of communist leaders. Food self-sufficiency is also invariably seen as a prime matter of national security.
Part of the reason is historical - the Communist party has never been able to account for the famine in the late 1950s when millions died from starvation. But there is also the physical challenge of China struggling to feed a fifth of the world's population on one-seventh of the world's arable land.
Even in the era of global trade, political fixation on bumper harvests continues to grip the Chinese leadership. "Grain security concerns the nation's livelihood and social stability," Prime Minster Wen Jiabao was quoted as saying by the 'Farmers' Daily.'
Since China embraced biotechnology in 1986, Chinese leaders have regarded all genetically modified crops as a viable shortcut to stable food supplies and national prosperity.
China has committed itself to the research and commercial production of GM crops faster than any other Asian country. As of today, the country has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in biotechnology research and ranks second in the field only to the United States.
China is one of the first few countries in the world to allow the commercial production of a GM crop. The Ministry of Agriculture has granted six commercial licences for GM crops - two for bollworm-resistant cotton, two for slow-ripening and virus-resistant tomatoes, and one license each for sweet pepper and petunias.
Unlike Europe where some environmentalists have lablelled GM foods as 'Frankenfoods,' claiming not enough testing has been done to ensure the foods are safe for consumers and questioning whether they harm the soil where they grow, in China the acceptance of the new crops has happened smoothly and raised few alarms.
Nevertheless, Beijing has proceeded with caution in allowing GM rice for widespread cultivation. No other major genetically altered crop is consumed directly by humans and there lacks substantial study about the long-term effects of the engineered rice on human health.
China's ratification of the Convention on Biological Diversity, in 2000, coincided with the peak of anti-GM sentiment in Europe and the country suspended the commercialization process of all GM crops.
Research however, continued. The environmental group Greenpeace claimed recently that GM rice had illegally entered the food chain in China.
The environmental group said the crop was being grown illegally in the central province of Hubei and then sold commercially without the approval of the Chinese authorities.
May 27, 2005 (http://www.albionmonitor.com) All Rights Reserved. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to use in any format.
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