China's recent roll-out of a a US$3.7 billion research programme to develop genetically modified (GM) crops, particularly rice, has been hailed by supporters as the means to feed the country's swelling population.
But opposition remains strong due to concerns ranging from the health and environmental risks to regulation loopholes, writes Jane Qiu in Nature.
GM rice developers have shown that introducing Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) or other anti-insect genes can cut pesticide use, labour costs and yield losses caused by pests.
But ecologists such as David Andow, an entomologist at the University of Minnesota, say other pests have overtaken those targeted by Bt, and gene outflow through cross-pollination might be unavoidable.
Others warn that GM technology safeguards could be undermined by the monoculture of rice and lack of adjacent refuges, which would encourage resistant pests; the absence of effective labelling of GM seeds; and the illegal release of GM varieties from laboratories.
Worryingly, many stakeholders are being excluded from the agriculture ministry's biosafety evaluation process.
However, the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development warned in April that a narrow focus developing GM crops is misguided. "Without a concerted global effort to restore soil fertility, genetic modification would be futile," its president, Hans Herren, says.
Nature 455, 850 (2008)