You may yawn when pondering the price of tea in China, but you may sit up and take notice at the state of rice in China. It's either in dire straits or the new darling of the global economy, depending on whom you believe.
China is all but ready to release genetically modified rice, according to Yuan Longpin, who heads the China National Hybrid Rice Research and Development Center. Yuan told a Chinese news service in February that one or more strains of GM rice would likely receive official biosafety certificates sometime this year. Before the rice is released commercially it would undergo up to two years of field studies.
The impact such a move would have is being hotly debated. "I think it's pretty speculative right now," said Bryce Lundberg, vice president of agriculture at Lundberg Family Farms, which produces organic rice. "Certainly we at Lundberg would not be in support of introducing GM rice in China ? or in the United States. But the direct and immediate impact on us here in California—it's a little hard to say what that would be."
GM advocates say transgenic rice could decrease pesticide use in China by 80 percent, and increase output by 4 percent to 8 percent. Rice is China's primary food, and with the population continually growing, meeting demand at a reasonable cost is a priority for the country. Chinese officials estimate commercialization of GM rice could save the country US $4 billion a year, and could feed an additional 60 million to 70 million people.
Is it safe?
Critics of the technology say the strains that are the primary candidates for release should raise serious worldwide concern. One type uses proteins, called Cry toxins, to kill leaf folder and yellow stem borer insects. "However, the fusion toxin does not appear to have been tested for mammalian toxicity and it has not yet been used in any GM crop that has been released commercially," wrote Joe Cummins, professor emeritus of genetics at the University of Western Ontario in London, Ontario, Canada. Cummins' review of GM rice appeared on the Web site of the Institute of Science in Society last November. In addition, Cummins noted, the methodology used to create the insect-resistant rice also creates genetic instability. "Such insertion mutations are capable of creating unexpected toxins and for that reason cannot be ignored."
The other type of rice likely to be commercialized, Cummins predicted, is disease-resistant rice. On Jan. 27 the Chinese Ministry of Agriculture said it was considering Xa21 rice, a strain resistant to bacterial blight. "Xa21 rice is likely to be safe for humans but testing should be done," Cummins told NFM. "China has, I believe, agreed to label and identify the [GM] rice food. I hope that they will study the people consuming the rice because there are concerns over the allergenicity of the Bt toxin-containing food."
Still, it's better than the alternative. At one point China considered developing commercial rice that uses tricosanthin, a protein found in the medicinal Chinese cucumber, to control the rice blast fungus. "Tricosanthin has long been used to produce abortion in humans and is immunosuppressive and can induce renal toxicity," Cummins wrote. "It is clear that exposure of the general public to GM tricosanthin rice is unwise."
But no one knows for sure how much of the worldwide population would be exposed if China moves ahead with its plan. Many environmentalists and organic-food advocates have expressed concern that rice could proceed much as GM maize has, so that even in the most remote regions of the world, it is now impossible to find a truly heirloom ear of corn. Greenpeace China has argued that the risk of gene floating between GM rice and conventional and organic rice would be quite high. One scientist, Jia Shirong, of the Chinese Academy of Agriculture, told the Financial Times that his research showed a very small risk of gene floating.
Cummins disagreed. "There is good evidence that GM rice does spread pollen a lot further than corn," he said. "Not only food rice but [also] weed rice, like red rice, can take up the resistance genes, making them more virulent." Cummins noted that tests are available to identify transgenes in rice. "So pollution of organic crops and conventional crops will be detectable and they will happen." Cummins added, however, that the U.S. Department of Agriculture may overlook such contamination. "USDA ? has recently maintained that the polluted organic farmers will not lose their certification, although they may lose the export market." The United States is currently the fourth-largest exporter of rice in the world.
The economic impact
Lundberg frames the potential impact differently, noting that last year, when California rice growers voted to permit the release of a pharmaceutical rice, some groups in Japan said they would have to review California's status as a supplier of rice. "I'm curious to see how those same groups would respond to China," Lundberg said. "If China does this and other countries respond negatively it could strengthen the resolve of other countries to say, 'Hey, we're not touching that.'" Conversely, he noted, "Other countries might say 'Well, China did it; we should, too.'"
The Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology told The Economist that if China approves the GM rice, India and Brazil are likely to follow suit so as not to lag behind China's economy. And with a food that is the most widely consumed grain in the world, that rush to institute biotech has many on the edge of their seats.