Under Draft 'Grains Law,' No GM Rice
Earlier this month, Origin Agritech Ltd. Chairman Han Gengchen was optimistic. By 2013, he predicted, his company would be the first to commercially produce genetically-modified (GM) corn in China, after years of government clearances and delays.
Han's wait, however, may extend beyond 2013. Days after his announcement, the Chinese government signaled that it may be far from approving bioengineered corn and rice, in its first-ever "Grains Law" draft legislation released February 21.
"Neither group nor individual may apply genetically-modified technologies to staple foods," the legislation reads. Although the draft does not clarify what exactly constitutes a "staple food," in China the classification typically includes rice, corn and wheat.
The legislation comes amid widespread public concern in China over the safety of GM foods, as well as their environmental risks. In 2010, 85 percent of respondents to a survey conducted by China Daily and the Internet portal Sohu.com said they were concerned about the potential health hazards of GM foods, which are altered for advantages like pest or disease resistance, or nutrition.
Currently, only papayas, tomatoes and bell peppers have attained clearance for commercial GM production in China. Although GM rice production is currently illegal, Bt63 strain rice seeds have been circulating around China as early as 2005.
For all the controversy, no conclusive scientific evidence exists to prove that GM foods harm humans, Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention Food Expert Wu Yongning told China Daily in 2010.
Scientific data from the past decades or so, however, has revealed a number of environmental effects and risks. For example, in 2001, scientists found that pollen from one strain of Bt corn in the United States proved lethal to monarch butterfly larvae.
Pesticide-resistant GM plants, moreover, can encourage the increased use of pest-killing chemicals, leading to unintended resistance in other nearby plants. Some scientists suspect that pesticide-resistant horseweed has proliferated in the United States because of GM foods and increased chemical spraying around the country.
In other cases, plants engineered to withstand bugs or other environmental threats may not need pesticides in the first place. According to the non-profit International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Application, which promotes GM crops, the expansion of GM plants between 1996 and 2006 prevented 224,000 tons of pesticides from being sprayed onto crops globally.
"I don't object to the commercialization of GM rice," Nanjing Research Institute of Environmental Science biodiversity specialist Xue Dayuan told Xinhua News, "but I'm concerned about its risks."
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