Authorities in China have held back on renewing the safety permits of three genetically modified plants, casting uncertainty on the future of experiments by the scientists who developed those crops.
The three plants – two varieties of genetically modified (GM) rice and one variety of genetically modified maize – received safety certificates in 2009, which allow these plants to be grown within certain parameters, but they expired in August, the South China Morning Post has learned.
Zhang Lan, a researcher from the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences in Beijing, where the GM corn plant was developed, told the Post: “We first got the certificate in August 17, 2009, whose validity was five years and the maize was only allowed to be grown within certain plot and with protective measures.”
The corn plant was developed to feed livestock and it had yet to be cultivated, according to Zhang.
Zhang said authorities would approve the safety certificate within a couple of years, but the lack of the renewed certificate would delay plans to develop the crop for commercial use.
”If we get the certificate now, we could soon commercialize the GM corn plant,” she said.
An official from Huazhong Agricultural University in Wuhan, in central Hubei province, told the Post that the two breeds of GM rice developed by his university have only been grown in an experimental field on campus.
The rice variants were only used for experiment purposes, the official said.
In China, GM plants must be approved by agricultural authorities before they can be grown in fields. Research institutes or universities should file four kinds of documents concerning the safety of the genetically modified plants to gain approval.
Zhang believes public concerns over GM food have certainly affected policymakers.
”But we import so much GM soy beans and maize from abroad and now they wouldn’t give approval to our own GM plants. Isn’t that self-contradictory?” she said.
Genetic modification of crops involves an alteration of an organism’s DNA, either by removing or tweaking hereditary material to produce particular traits. While it has been touted as a way to produce stronger, more resistant varieties of crops, some critics fear they could be harmful to the health and could upset the natural balance of ecosystems.
China has so far only approved two genetically modified plants – insect-resistant cotton and virus-resistant papaya – to be grown for commercial purposes. But it has grappled with issues of improper labelling and the existence of secret GM facilities.
In June this year, China’s Ministry of Agriculture ordered officials to track down possible testing facilities for GM food due to the continued illegal sale of GM good in parts of China.
In an exposé by state media in July, GM rice was found to be on sale in a large supermarket in Wuhan.