Experimental Chinese GM rice strain wins landmark US approval. But it’s still banned in China
Developer says Chinese limits on cultivation mean variety is still a long way from market
US food and environmental authorities have for the first time approved the use of a Chinese strain of genetically modified rice, opening the way for the commercialisation of the controversial experimental crop in the United States.
The US Food and Drug Administration said on Saturday that there were no safety or regulatory issues with food derived from Huahui-1 rice, the Chinese developer of the variety said in an online statement on the weekend. It followed similar approval given earlier by the US Environmental Protection Agency.
“This means that the rice can now be exported to the US and sold to the general public there,” Huazhong Agricultural University biotechnologist Professor Yan Jianbing said.
“It’s also an important step for possible international trade of the product in the future.
“If it [can’t be grown] at home, it might be worth trying to grow it in other countries.”
Huahui-1 is an insect-resistant crop developed by a team led by Huazhong Agricultural University professor Zhang Qifa, and is one of two varieties approved for experimental use in China. The developers will still need US Department of Agriculture approval to grow it there.
Yan said the approval was a milestone in the field and “shows that the US completely agrees with our methods and data in assessing the safety and nutrition of the rice”.
Chinese authorities are keen for the country to become a world leader in GM food but it has been a long-running source of public concerns.
The Chinese Ministry of Agriculture has approved the rice and other GM crops for research but bans them from sale and large-scale cultivation.
The US approvals are part of an extensive consultation process Zhang’s team engaged in to smooth the way for the crop offshore.
Zhang’s team started working with the USEPA in 2009 and the USFDA in 2016, with the food agency saying in a letter on the weekend that it had “no further questions concerning human and animal food derived from Huahui-1 rice strain”.
Yan said the approvals should “help improve consumer’s confidence about GM food, to provide them with direct evidence that our technology is recognised by the Americans”.
But he said US sales of the rice were still a long way off because the Chinese authorities restricted planting to experimental fields.
Nevertheless, there have been reports from the media and environmental groups about farmers planting GM rice in Hubei province, where the university is based.
In 2016, the ministry admitted there were cases of illegal planting but stressed it was under control.
The United States is a major rice exporter although it produces less than 2 per cent of the world’s rice, according to the USDA.
China, the world’s biggest consumer and grower of rice, had kept its door shut to rice grown in the US until July last year, after more than a decade of negotiations ended in a trade deal between the two countries.
Beijing has approved the import of 18 overseas GM crops, including corn, soybeans, cotton and a few vegetables, but not rice.