Scholars urge GM rice push

By Zhang Yiqian Source:Global Times Published: 2013-10-21 0:53:01

Read more in Daily Special: China's 'golden hour' for GM rice

Dozens of academicians from the Chinese Academy of Science and the Chinese Academy of Engineering have made a joint appeal to State leaders calling for the industrialization of genetically modified (GM) rice, amid wide public skepticism over the safety of GM products.

At a promotion campaign for GM rice held in Wuhan, Central China's Hubei Province on Saturday, Zhang Qifa, a member of the Chinese Academy of Science and dean of the College of Life Science and Technology at Huazhong Agricultural University, told the Guangzhou-based Nandu Daily that 61 academicians made the appeal in July.

"We can't afford any delay for a push to industrialize planting of GM rice, or it will do harm to the country," Zhang quoted the letter as saying, adding the academicians also accused the Ministry of Agriculture of "inaction."

"Judging from the technology, we can be compared with the US," he told the Nandu Daily. "But we are far behind in commercialization. Right now we must establish a strong seed industry and push for the commercialized planting of GM rice."

The act met with some opposition. Yu Jiangli, head of Greenpeace's East Asia Food and Agriculture Campaign, told the Global Times the organization's stance has always been against wide planting and commercialization of GM rice.

"We believe GM products can have irreversible effects on the ecosystem and biodiversity," she said. "Besides, the health risks of the products are unknown."

Yan Jianbing, a professor from the same college as Zhang and an attendee at the promotion, told the Global Times GM rice has many advantages over regular rice, such as higher production, higher pest resistance and ability to tackle vitamin A deficiency in the human body.

Two types of GM rice developed by a lab led by Zhang in the university use the bacillus thuringiensi (Bt) gene in the rice, in order to increase the ability to fight off pests. It also raises production by 8 percent, according to a 2010 article in the Capital Week.

The two types of rice received safety certificates from the Ministry of Agriculture in 2009, but this isn't the same as mass production and commercialization of the crops, said Luo Yunbo, dean of the Food College at China Agricultural University.

"After you receive the certificates, you also need an evaluation of the specific breed, as well as production permission," he told the Global Times.

The certificates will expire in 2014, Zhang told the Nandu Daily, while China is still nowhere close to the commercialization of GM rice crops.

One of the reasons is public opinion, Luo said, noting if many people are against it, then the government won't be able to make a decision.

In China, GM products have long been under the spotlight and have been surrounded by many debates.

"For thousands of years, the Chinese people have been altering the variety of rice crops, but they've always done it the natural way, never adding the gene from another species," Yu said.

Yu's concern was echoed by many skeptical people.

"Do you have any idea what harms GM products bring to the human body? How can we make sure it has advantages over the products we have now?" one microblog user asked.

There are also people supporting the spread of GM foods. Saturday's promotion campaign was organized by Net users in Wuhan and over 300 people attended and tasted dishes cooked with GM rice. Similar events have been held in 28 cities in China since May, according to the Nandu Daily.

Luo said there is no reason to be overly cautious about GM products. He lists Iran and the US as countries that have allowed the commercialization of GM rice, and said international organizations such as the World Health Organization have given safety evaluations to GM products.

More importantly, Luo believes adopting such technology is strategically important for China.

"We've imported so much GM soy bean, and GM corn is knocking on China's door right now," he said. "If foreign countries control our foods, that's even less secure. If we have such products, we can compete with these countries."

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