China hype is deja vu


The research reported below on GM rice in China suggests some very significant benefits are accruing to farmers growing experimental GM rice. It not only cut costs for poor farmers but improved health, the just-published study claims.

GM proponents wishing to propel China into a GM future are making the most of the study, with the researchers themselves leading the way. Jikun Huang, who led the study, is quoted as predicting, "Agricultural biotechnology may boost China's agriculture, improve the nation's food security, and increase the income and improve the health of rice farmers."

Significantly, a BBC report quotes Huang as saying that "he hoped [the research] would help persuade the Chinese government to license the commercial use of GM rice." (GM rice praised in Chinese study) http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/4495775.stm

For some observers, this wave of GM hype out of China may produce a curious sense of deja vu.

The American researchers Carl Pray and Scott Rozelle, who produced this research together with Jikun Huang and another Chinese colleague Hu Ruifa, have previously done an exactly similar job on GM cotton in China.

Large amounts of publicity have previously been generated by their surveys conducted in five northern provinces in China on the impact of Bt cotton. Their research pointed to GM cotton having "positive and significant economic and health benefits for poor, small farmers". (Why genetically modified cotton thrives in China)

If that sounds familiar, then in the case of Bt cotton too, the researchers weren't shy about suggesting that, in the light of their findings, there were policy implications for investment in the expansion of GM cultivation.

However, because Bt cotton has been in use in China for some time, it helps to point up the danger of arriving at short-term solutions to long-term problems, particularly when there are other low-cost low-risk solutions to the problems that GM technologies are seeking to overcome.

There have been reports of major problems with Bt cotton in a number of countries, including China where there have even been predictions that the technology could not only become useless within a decade but, in the words of one Chinese reseacher, "cause a disaster".

A report published in June 2002 seriously questioned the claims of success made for Bt cotton in China. The report suggested that while the widespread adoption of Bt cotton may have reduced pesticide consumption, it had also resulted in the evolution of Bt toxin-resistant bollworms which could make the technology "ineffective in controlling pests after eight to ten years of continuous production". The scientists also pointed to secondary pests emerging that caused equivalent damage to Bt cotton.

Inevitably, the research came under ferocious attack from the GM lobby, even though it was based on the work of scientists at a research institute funded by China's State Environmental Protection Agency. But then Liu Xiaofeng, a researcher in Henan, China's number two cotton producing province, confirmed the research findings. Liu was cited as saying that the cotton bollworm was indeed developing resistance and predicted it would no longer be susceptible to Bt cotton within six to seven years. He also confirmed that Bt cotton was not effective in controlling secondary pests.

Prof. Dayuan XUE, of the Nanjing Institute of Environmental Science in China has also expressed scepticism about the claims made for major benefits for small-scale farmers. "Modern agri-biotechnology has produced significant benefits for commercial companies, " he says, "but not for small farmers in China."

Hans Herren, Director General, of the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology, based in Nairobi in Kenya, and the winner of the 1995 World Food Prize puts his finger on the problem: "farmers are likely to be weaned from pesticides to be force fed biotech seeds - in other words, taken off one treadmill and set on a new one!"

Herren also points out that, "The trend towards a quasi-monopolization of funding in agricultural development into a narrow set of technologies is dangerous and irresponsible. Also, too many hopes and expectations are being entrusted in these technologies, to the detriment of more conventional and proven technologies and approaches that have been very successful and which potential lies mostly unused in the developing countries."

Hans Herren concludes, "It is only too obvious to concerned scientists, farmers and citizens alike that we are about to repeat, step by step, the mistakes of the insecticide era, even before it is behind us."

The BBC report on the GM rice study also notes some more specific concerns over how the GM rice study has been conducted. Sze Pang Cheung of Greenpeace China is quoted as saying: "The Science paper states that farmers cultivated the GE rice without the assistance of technicians, and that quite a number of the randomly selected participants grew both [genetically engineered] and conventional varieties on their small family farms."

"In other countries, GE field trials are tightly regulated, monitored and separated from conventional rice crops.

"The Chinese system of regulating GE field trials is failing. It looks like GE rice has grown out of control under the very noses of the scientists that were trusted to control it."

The New York Times recently reported that experimental GM rice, which has been through no approval process and whose health and environmental effects remain entirely unknown, was being sold for commercial purposes by a university involved in researching it, and was thus going into China's food supply, including food for export.

"Many sellers here said the supplies came from a local university that specializes in biotech rice research," reported the Times, "They said bags of rice could be bought there... ‘All the anti-bug seeds have been sold out,’ said a woman operating the store at the Huazhong Agriculture University in Wuhan."

With the world becoming ever more aware of the problem of rogue GM crops, and buyers and regulators already taking action over rogue GM maize out of the US, China may be committing economic suicide if it allows itself to be manipulated any further down what is clearly a hazardous path.

It's time China checked out the sustainable alternatives to genetic engineering - approaches that can cut pesticides and improve farmers' returns without any of the hazards and complexities of GMOs.
Farmers say GM rice cuts pesticide illness
Tim Radford, science editor
Friday April 29 2005
The Guardian

Small farmers in China growing GM rice reported higher yields than for conventional varieties, a lower use of pesticides, and less illness related to the use of the pesticides, Chinese and US scientists report today in Science journal.

In eight field trials in two consecutive years, the 69 farmers grew a rice genetically engineered to be resistant to stem borer and leaf roller, and also a rice fitted with an insect-resistance gene from a cowpea plant. They were not paid and made their own decisions about pesticide use; the research was funded by the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

For comparison, the researchers also surveyed farmers who used conventional varieties, or who grew both types. All applied the same kinds of pesticides, but on a per hectare basis the quantity and cost of those applied to conventional rice was eight to 10 times higher.

Yields of one GM variety were 9% higher than normal; the harvest from the other was about the same.

The researchers also asked the farmers' families if they had headaches, nausea, skin irritation, or digestive upsets after spraying. None of the farmers who completely converted to GM crops had pesticide health problems in either 2002 or 2003.
Of those that grew both GM and conventional varieties, 7.7% reported some illness in 2002, and 10.9% in 2003.

"This study provides China and other nations with objective, research-based information about whether GM food crops can actually improve farmer welfare," said Carl Pray of Rutgers University in New Jersey.

Copyright Guardian Newspapers Limited


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