Controversy erupts over genetically modified rice study

Scientists deny involvement in using 68 primary-school pupils for American-led research of genetically modified grain strain

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 06 September, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 06 September, 2012, 9:49am

A controversy has erupted on the mainland over the ethics of using primary-school children in Hunan in a study of the nutritional value of a genetically modified (GM) rice strain.

And the latest twist is that several Chinese scientists named as partners in the American-led study, conducted four years ago, denied participating in it at all, the People's Daily said yesterday.

Yin Shian , a researcher at the Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, told the state-run newspaper that he was only aware of scientific trials involving spinach, not rice.

Last month, a paper titled "Beta-carotene in golden rice is as good as beta-carotene in oil at providing vitamin A to children" was published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, published by the American Society of Nutrition.

Golden rice is a genetically modified rice species developed and recommended by scientists to address vitamin A deficiency in developing countries. The paper's lead author was Tang Guangwen, director of the Carotenoids and Health Laboratory at Tufts University in Boston.

The paper said 68 Hunan children aged six to eight were given either golden rice, spinach or beta-carotene in an oil capsule. The study concluded that Vitamin A levels in the 23 children who received golden rice matched those of the children given the capsules and exceeded those who were fed spinach.

"Both parents and pupils consented to participate in the study", which was approved by Tufts and the Zhejiang Academy of Medical Sciences, the paper said. "All authors reviewed the manuscript," it said.

But Hu Yuming , the second author listed in the paper, told the People's Daily on Monday that he had not read the paper before publication and that the golden-rice trial did not occur in Hunan. He said he had no idea why his name appeared on the research.

"I have been cloaked by a fog," said Hu, a researcher with Hunan's Centre for Disease Control and Prevention.

Yin Shian, the third author listed - who "conducted the study and collected the samples", according to the paper - told the newspaper that he was not aware of any data regarding golden rice in the study.

"Our project, which was conducted in Jiangkou Central Primary School in Hengnan county, Hengyang , was to investigate the conversion efficiency of beta-carotene from vegetables such as spinach to Vitamin A," he said.

Wang Yin , the fourth author listed - who "reviewed the study design and supervised the study", according to the paper - also denied her involvement.

"I am not aware of that paper," the Zhejiang Academy of Medical Sciences researcher said.

Other mainland media quoted witnesses as saying that golden rice was not involved in the trial.

He Zhongqiu, the former head of the primary school who helped organise the trial in 2008, told China Business News that the rice cooked for the students was brought from local supermarkets and produced by a local firm.

The People's Daily quoted a Tufts spokesman as saying on Tuesday that it was looking into the matter with the staff involved.

Neither Tang nor Tufts University responded to e-mails from the South China Morning Post requesting interviews.

Environmentalist Fang Lifeng said the controversy also highlighted loopholes in China's GM research.

The Greenpeace China activist said yesterday that some Chinese scientists did not meet ethical standards in their genetic research and the government had failed to keep a close watch on their work.

"We have been following the genetic engineering of crops in China for years," he said. "We often find GM crops, such as rice, that have escaped from laboratories to farmland and even food markets.

"We urge the government to establish a more effective system to keep the study of GM crops within laboratories."