A farmer checks on the progress of her rice crop in Qionghai, Hainan province. China is thinking about embracing genetically modified rice in a bid to improve the yield and taste of the staple. [Photo by Meng Zhongde/China Daily]
Genetically modified (GM) rice, which proponents say is more resistant to pests and more satisfying to taste buds, may be edging toward the market in China.
Government officials said Monday final approval to sell GM rice is close.
Experts said a change in attitude toward the production of the engineered food began last year. China has not allowed any selling or planting of GM rice. In 2005, the sales of transgenic rice in Hubei province was revealed by Greenpeace causing a big controversy.
"China has worked on research of transgenic rice and is strongly considering (its commercialization)," said Niu Dun, vice-minister of agriculture, Monday.
Last July, the State Council approved a major project involved in the research and development of genetically altered foods, including meats and produce. The council has expected to invest about 20 billion yuan on transgenic breeding since then.
Officials said that by 2020, the country could be a leader in GM foods, cloning, large-scale transgenic technology and new breed promotion. Rice and corn are the items nearest commercialization.
Niu did not say when approval to sell genetically altered rice might come.
Rice is a crucial staple in Asia and throughout the Pacific area and officials said increased production would make a massive difference.
According to the Center for Chinese Agricultural Policy, genetically modified rice could lead to an 80 percent cut in pesticide use. GM rice could also increase yields by around 6 percent.
But opponents of GM foods say the long-term health implications are unknown.
Fang Lifeng, with Greenpeace's food and agriculture department, said the commercialization would have a vast impact on Asia.
"The environmental consequences of genetically modified rice is worth worrying about," he said.
David Huang, of the Longping High-Tech Co Ltd, said China should be careful. He said it will take time for the rice market to open up to transgenic technology.
"Such technology, without scientific proof, should not be used," he added.
The International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA) reports show there are now 60 times more transgenic plants in cultivation than there were 10 years ago. They are now found in 22 countries. Some 224,000 tons of pesticide is not used as a result.
China currently produces around 500 million tons of rice. With its population expected to grow to 1.6 billion by 2020, 630 million tons of rice will be needed. Science is seen as the best way to meet that demand.
Throughout the world, some 114 million hectares of transgenic plants were grown by 2007. Crops included potatoes, soybeans, cotton and rice.
In China, the safety of transgenic food is not only a scientific issue, but one with economic and political importance, said Cao Mengliang, a researcher on molecular rice in China National Hybrid Rice R&D Centre.
The technology has not yet been commercialized but is being considered by top government officials, he said.
"Studies of the safety of the technology have been completed. Discussions about whether to open it up to the market are now in the final stages. Now, the safety certificate is the last thing needed before commercialized production," Cao said.
The technology will mainly focus on insect resistance, pesticide implications and disease control and upon improvements to quality and taste, he said.
GM rice is likely to be welcomed by farmers because of its potential to generate larger profits, in part because of its reduced need for pesticides.
Wang Xiusong, rice consultant to the Ministry of Agriculture, said some obstacles still block the technology from large-scale use, including the fact that its gene stability could vary drastically.
He said it could be used as a complementary measures but not a mainstream one.