Illicit trade endangers biotech barriers

The Guardian

Beijing, June 15:

Genetically engineered strains of the world’s most important staple crop, rice, could creep on to the global market through the back door, Greenpeace warned yesterday after disclosing that GE rice was being sold illegally in China.

The government in Beijing is still debating whether China should become the first country to switch to transgenic rice, but the environmental group said scientists and seed factories may be trying to bounce the authorities into a decision by making the controversial product so widely available that there is no turning back. Under pressure to feed the world’s biggest population, the government has launched advanced field trials of at least two strains of GE rice in Hubei and Fujian provinces.

The trials are supposed to be controlled so that they do not contaminate neighbouring fields or enter the market. Licences for commercial production have not been granted. But Greenpeace said at least 29 tonnes of genetically modified rice seeds, capable of producing as much as 14,500 tonnes of rice, had been illegally sold in Hubei this year.

Last month, it found the seeds in local markets; yesterday it said the rice was being sold as far away as Guangzhou, capital of Guangdong province in the south. A laboratory in Germany found that the samples contained the Bacillus thuringiensis bacterium, genetically inserted to kill pests. The products had reportedly been sold under the names of two seed manufacturers owned by Huazhong Agriculture University, responsible for the trials of GE rice in Hubei.

“This calls into question the whole regulatory environment surrounding GE rice,” said a Greenpeace campaigner, Sze Pang Cheung, “It may be that researchers are taking advantage of the weak law enforcement in Hubei province so that as much rice as possible is contaminated and people have to take it for granted.” Despite intense lobbying by the biotech industry, politicians have hesitated to grant a commercial licence to GE rice because the long-term impact is uncertain.

About a quarter of China’s agricultural land is used for rice production and it provides a third of the calorie intake for its 1.3 billion people.

The proponents of GE rice say that yields of the crop are seven per cent to 15 per cent higher than usual and it uses fewer agrochemicals, which will improve the environment, lower prices and increase profits. Opponents, however, warn that the health risks are unclear and that GM crops could harm biodiversity by wiping out wild species of rice. The impact on other countries is still to be determined. As well as the possibility that modified crops could contaminate regular paddy fields, the rice could also be exported overseas, either directly or in the form of processed produce. However, the accusations would create doubts about China’s recent ratification of a UN treaty.