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From newsdesk@igc.apc.org Fri Nov 17 10:19:56 2000
Date: Thu, 16 Nov 2000 22:24:00 -0600 (CST)
From: IGC News Desk <newsdesk@igc.apc.org>
Subject: BIOTECHNOLOGY: As Others Debate and Hesitate, China Embraces GM
Article: 109234
To: undisclosed-recipients:;

As Others Debate and Hesitate, China Embraces GM Crops

By Antoaneta Bezlova, IPS, 15 November 2000

SHANGHAI, Nov 15 (IPS) - Gene-modified crops are not terrifying read a recent headline in the state-run 'Guangming Daily', China's newspaper that focuses on science, technology and education.

The article extolled the miraculous new crops as a viable shortcut to stable food supplies and national prosperity for a country that struggles to feed a fifth of the world's population on one-seventh of the world's arable land.

The aim of such proclamation is not to gather public support, as it may seem, but to demonstrate China's positive outlook on genetic crops.

Unlike the industrialized West where Frankenfoods have stirred heated debate over health hazards and environmental safety, in China the acceptance of the new crops has happened smoothly and has raised few alarm flags.

Faster than any other Asian country, China has committed to the research and commercial production of genetically modified or GM crops. The rush towards genetic crops is propelled by the need to ensure that food production keeps pace with population growth.

Yet another lure for China, which sees itself as a scientific superpower, is to embrace the new science before it becomes dominated by the countries of the West.

Biotechnology is regarded as the nation's top scientific research priority under the government's 863 Project, so named because it began in March 1986. The biotechnology research budget this year already is triple the amount of last year's one billion yuan (120 million U.S. dollars).

Currently, more than 100 laboratories across the country are doing research on the gene sequences of crops, animals and humans.

In Beijing, Chen Dayuan, one of China's senior biologists, is working on the DNA code of fast-disappearing panda and promises to clone it within three years. Also in the capital, American and Chinese scientists are cooperating to identify the genetic make- up of pig.

Shanghai, the bustling metropolis on China's east coast, hosts the modern building of the Chinese National Human Genome Center where scientists in their mid-30s are trying to decipher the so- called Book of Life, or the map of human genes.

As the only developing nation in the six-nation project which it joined only last year, China is expected to complete just one per cent of the genome code. But in other areas of genetic engineering, the country is already scoring records.

China was the first country in the world to begin growing GM crops commercially. The start was made with virus-resistant tobacco plants in 1988. In the next 12 years, Beijing approved the release of more than 90 genetically altered crops.

The Ministry of Agriculture has also granted six licenses for their commercial production: two for bollworm-resistant cotton, two for slow-ripening and virus-resistant tomatoes, and one license each for sweet pepper and petunias.

In the next five years, the government will focus even more on the commercialisation of our scientific discoveries, says Shanghai geneticist Lin Ying.

Last month the government unveiled its new Five-Year Plan for China's development between 2001 and 2005, which shows continued emphasis not only on scientific innovation but also on industrialisation of scientific breakthroughs.

China's scientific community is also hoping that half of the country's fields will be planted with GM crops within 10 years. Professor Chen Zhangliang, vice-president of Beijing University and one of China's leading bio-engineers, estimates there are now at least 1.4 million acres planted to GM crops in China. Some say the area might be as high as two million acres.

China's biggest genetic effort focuses on rice, the world's most widely consumed grain. China National Rice Research Institute in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, has spearheaded the research, opting to engineer rice plants that have higher yields, greater food quality and which are more resistant to drought and insects.

According to industry sources, this effort is already bearing fruit. Earlier this year the herbicide-resistant GM rice was approved for release and began selling on a trial basis in several counties in eastern Zhejiang province.

Worldwide, environmental activists have objected to this rush towards genetic crops. They fear that GM crops will introduce unwanted traits into crops grown on neighboring fields and possibly create new strains of superweeds. They fear also that the long-term effects on the health of consumers have not been fully determined.

Professor Chen from Beijing University has an answer to that. With supervision and enough respect for the scientific ethics, humanity can fully overcome the possible negative effects of gene- transplanting technology, he says. Look how we succeeded in using nuclear energy for peaceful purposes.

Other scientists are more cautious, calling for labeling of all GM content in foods. China has no legislation on genetically- modified foods and the provisions on GM Crops Safety Rules Implementation, issued by the Ministry of Agriculture, do not apply to imported agricultural products.

Doctor Ying Tiejin from the Food and Nutrition Department of Zhejiang University asserts that gene-modified foods are already present in the diet of many Chinese people. For example, the soybean cooking oil many Chinese consumers use, is made of American gene-altered beans, and domestically-produced beer many drink contain genetically-improved yeast.

Safety concern is one reason why we should label foods with GM content, he says. Giving consumers the right to choose is another one.