Against the grain

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 16 November, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 16 November, 2004, 12:00am

It's new year among the rice-growing Hani people in southwestern Yunnan province, the harvest is in and farmer Li Shuzhou is singing with all his might.

'Use a flowered hen, to bring back the rice spirit. Use a red cockerel, to calm down the rice spirit,' Mr Li bellows into a microphone at a harvest party in Laobo village. Mr Li, a fifty-something man dressed in simple blue cotton with a tanned face, is surrounded by farmers eating and drinking their fill. The annual October harvest in Honghe county is in and it is time to celebrate - and to woo back the rice spirit, disturbed by work in the fields. The Hani believe that without getting the spirit back, there is no guarantee there will be a crop next year.

If a proposal before the central government to introduce a new kind of rice is approved, the rice spirit that Mr Li serenades after harvest may soon be the spirit of genetically engineered grains.

Faced with shrinking crop land as industrialisation gobbles up fields, a population growing by 10 million a year and pressure not to fall behind in international biotechnology research, the central government is debating whether to introduce genetically engineered rice, in a move that would profoundly alter the country's millennia-old relationship with its staple food. It would also make China the first country in the world to switch to a genetically-altered version of its main food crop, something some scientists say carries special risks.

While genetically engineered crops have made substantial inroads into agriculture in the US since their introduction there in 1996, key transgenic - or genetically engineered - crops, such as soya beans and corn, are both still primarily used for animal feed and not for human consumption, although some is consumed, mostly in the form of oil. Transgenic cotton is already widely grown on the mainland.

Pioneered by major biotechnology food corporations such as Monsanto, one of the two most common transgenic strains on the market creates herbicide resistance, meaning chemicals can be used on the crop without killing it; the other splices in the gene for the Bacillus thuringiensis bacteria, enabling it to fight several common pests that reduce yield.

Other, more exotic crossbreeds have been achieved by firing a fish gene into a strawberry's DNA, in an effort to make the fruit frost-free; or, famously, engineering rice to produce vitamin A, which created a plant that supplied the essential vitamin lacking in many rural areas, but that also was orange. Stunned, scientists dubbed it 'golden rice'.

Just as rapid as the scientific advance has been a cultural backlash that forced Monsanto in May to drop plans to introduce herbicide-resistant wheat. Spooked by the emergence of so-called 'Frankenfoods', opposition is especially strong in Europe. Unlike the US, where regulators require evidence that a food is harmful before banning it, the EU's so-called Precautionary Principle ensures a more cautious approach; where doubt exists as to a food's safety, EU law bans it until proven safe.

Proponents of transgenic crops say they cut pesticide and herbicide use and raise yield; and that they have the potential to improve the nutritional content of food, and in the future may deliver key pharmaceutical ingredients too.

Opponents fear genetically altered crops may cause long-term harm to human health; that they will pollute the genetic environment and may raise allergy levels or have other, unforeseen, consequences. A commonly used example is that of the cauliflower spliced with peanut protein. If a nut-allergic child eats it, will they suffer a harmful reaction? Sceptics say a soya bean that is genetically resistant to common pests may be a good thing in itself, but it's unclear whether it is good for us to ingest that resistance.

The pressure to get on board the genetically engineered bandwagon is intense. Determined not to be outpaced by the US in the race to acquire food biotechnology, China is pouring money into research. Scientists say the government has invested somewhere between 30 and 100 million yuan in designing transgenic rice strains, with one project alone, run by the Chinese Academy of Sciences in collaboration with the Fujian Academy of Agricultural Sciences, receiving 30 million yuan.

All this money is creating a dynamic of its own and next month, a meeting of the National Agricultural Safety Council on Genetically Engineered Foods will discuss approving a pest-resistant version of rice, in a move that could clear the way to the nationwide commercialisation of the crop within six to eight years. The issue is so sensitive it will require a personal seal of approval from the top of China's political system - either Vice-Premier Hui Liangyu, or Premier Wen Jiabao.

'This decision is so big, no one wants to take responsibility,' says one scientist closely involved with the project. 'The Agriculture Ministry doesn't dare. It must go to the very top,' For Professor Zhu Zhen of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, a leading researcher into transgenic rice, the issue is simple. 'I think this will be of great advantage to Chinese farmers,' he says.

The professor, who predicts commercialisation could begin as early as 2006, cites studies by fellow academic Huang Jikun, who says pest-resistant rice - the type that is currently pending approval with the safety council - will reduce yield loss by an average of 6 or 7 per cent. Growing pest-resistant rice means farmers spread less pesticide, cutting costs, says Professor Zhu. 'They're already welcoming it in the test sites [the government has set up in Fujian province],' he says.

Importantly, poorly educated Chinese farmers don't know what transgenic crops are anyway, making compliance a certainty.

'They don't know what it is. There won't be much of a problem from the farmers,' the professor says. Nor is there any public debate in China on the issue, something environmental group Greenpeace is trying to counter with a campaign to raise awareness. Greenpeace recently organised a 'Rice Tour' in Yunnan province, where it gathered testimony from farmers such as Mr Li, who plant both traditional breeds and non-transgenic hybrids that China has developed very successfully since the 1970s.

Professor Xue Dayuan is a scientist at the Nanjing Institute of Environmental Science, and also a member of the State Environment Protection Administration, where he is working on a nationwide project to document China's biodiversity. He's gravely worried about a key issue related to transgenic crops: gene contamination.

In this scenario, a transgenic strain of a crop that has close relatives in the wild - such as rice - crosses over into the wild population, creating a more aggressive form that cannot be contained and that may harm animals feeding on it.

'If that happens, it would be a disaster,' says Professor Xue. 'The genetic pollution will damage biodiversity. You really have to careful about introducing this kind of thing.'

Mexico has banned genetically engineered corn because, as the home of maize, it has many wild varieties that could cross with farmed varieties, and rice is to China what maize is to Mexico. That makes introducing transgenic rice a 'huge experiment', says Dr Doug Gurian-Sherman, a senior scientist at the Washington-based Centre for Food Safety. 'As far as I know, the Chinese experiment would be the first where a major genetically engineered food crop will be grown in a country where there are important native wild relatives that can interbreed with it. Only very thorough environmental testing, including [testing] the impact of the genetically engineered gene in wild relatives, can assure that harm will not occur or will be minor.'

For Professor Xue, it's only a matter of time before transgenic rice is commercialised. Farmers, he says, are ignorant, and those that do know what transgenic rice is, are 'running after a fashion. They hear the words 'United States!', 'High yield!', 'Insect resistant!' And they want it.'

For the government, it's a question of pride. 'They think of it as a national strategy,' Professor Xue says. 'They don't want to lag behind [the US]. This all is just a question of time now. It's unavoidable.'

Professor Zhu Xinquan sits on the government's transgenic food safety committee. The elderly scientist, president of the Chinese Society of Agro-Biotechnology, has the ear of senior leaders on food issues. Yet he seems less than convinced transgenic is the right route, and says the government may not reach a decision this December after all.

'Rice is China's main source of food,' he says. 'We need to secure it in order to secure our food supply. But what people are worried about in using foreign genes is firstly, whether it will impact on their health, and secondly, whether it will damage the environment. 'There haven't been any long-term studies on how people will react to the altered genes. We simply don't know what they will do to us.

'From my personal point of view, we can't just rush in because that would be very irresponsible, and we would have to bear that responsibility in the future.'


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