Modified rice at least a year away
It will be at least a couple of years, and possibly more, before any genetically modified rice is consumed in China.
Agricultural authorities are currently examining several strains but, as of yesterday, no safety certificates had been granted.
A biosafety committee under the Ministry of Agriculture is assessing safety of several insect and disease-resistant genetically modified (GM) rice crops, and is likely to make decisions early next year, a spokesperson of the ministry's biosafety office said yesterday.
Even if any of these genetically engineered rice strains are awarded safety certificates, they must undergo up to two years of field studies before proceeding to commercialization, said office director Fang Xiangdong.
The biannual genetically modified organisms safety assessment meeting held by the State agricultural biosafety committee this week in Beijing has stirred widespread attention among the public, as the discussions might lead to commercialization of genetically altered rice in China.
While the world has seen the ever-increasing growth of genetically modified soybean, cotton, corn and rapeseed crops, GM rice has not been commercialized anywhere.
China, where rice as the main food crop, is proceeding with caution in its research and development of GM rice.
In a statement made available to China Daily yesterday, the Ministry of Agriculture said the country has made headway in GM paddy rice research in recent years.
Research of GM rice dates back to the 1980s, according to ministry sources.
A few Chinese developers applied for assessment of their strains this year, whose yields they claimed are able to resist pests, diseases, weedicides and be stored for a long time, according to the statement.
The ministry declined to identify the developers. It said they are all Chinese institutions.
In line with the country's GM organisms statutes, the ministry is conducting food safety testing on the GM rice crops.
It is also assessing their impact on the environment, before giving the go-ahead for them to be released into the environment, small-scale trial production or finally the green light for commercialization, the statement said.
Since 1997, China has approved field trials for rice, rapeseed, corn, wheat, potato and soybeans derived from biotechnology. It only granted safety certificates for insect-resistant cotton, tomato, pimiento and a species of morning glory.
Professor Zhu Zhen of the Chinese Academy of Sciences said planting GM rice strains could improve production, reduce cost and environmental pollution through minimizing use of pesticide.
Zhu's Institute of Genetics and Developmental Biology is applying for safety assessment of a GM rice strain.
He said he was not sure if the application could be approved, as GM organisms are a very complicated issue, and the authorities are very prudent in this regard.
Acknowledging the role of biotechnology in improving rice quality and production, Zhu Youyong, president of Yunnan Agricultural University, said that in the long run, the best method to resist pests and disease is biodiversity.
The Beijing branch of Greenpeace yesterday expressed its concern about the next move of China's Ministry of Agriculture on GM rice.
"China is a centre of origin of rice," said a statement from the organization. "The biggest danger is the contamination of wild and conventional rice varieties with GM rice which can encourage more troublesome weeds and will lead to the loss of wild species."
For commercialized GM crops, the Ministry of Agriculture said it has established a nationwide supervision and monitoring system to ensure the goods are safe for people, animals and the environment.
The ministry has set up biosafety branch offices at agricultural departments in 27 provinces, municipalities and autonomous regions, according to the ministry statement.
In addition, the ministry has formed a GM organisms risk prevention mechanism, and put GM organisms under long term monitoring.
It also requires all genetically altered soybeans, corn, rapeseed, cotton seed and tomatoes to be clearly labeled as GM products when they hit the market.