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  • Negative attitudes 'hindering' China GM commercialisation

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[BARCELONA] European nations should take a more positive attitude towards genetically modified (GM) food because their negative stance is seriously affecting developing world policies regarding commercialisation of GM crops to feed hungry people, says a leading Chinese scientist.

"The attitudes of Chinese policymakers are deeply influenced by your views and I appeal to you to reconsider your stance so that modern agricultural technologies can benefit more people in China and other developing countries," said Yang Huanming, director of the Beijing Genomics Institute and China's leading researcher of human genomics and rice genomics projects.

Yang's remark was made on 18 July at a session organised by European Action on Global Life Sciences (EAGLES) during the Euroscience Open Forum.

It came days after the Chinese government approved a gigantic seeding research project that focuses on using a GM approach to improve plants' nutrition, yield, and tolerance to drought and floods.

Details of the research project were not revealed, but the China Daily newspaper reported that the funding for the long-term research programme (2006–2020) could be up to 20 billion Chinese yuan (US$2.92 billion), around 20 per cent of which would be used for biosafety inspection of new species and infrastructure construction.

Yang believes that this project will make the approval of GM crops easier, especially GM rice of which several varieties are under pre-commercialisation trials in China.

But environmental organisations, like Greenpeace, say that GM food poses a danger. They say there is risk of 'gene pollution' — where the inserted gene of GM plants affects non-target plants of similar kinds via pollination. Earlier this year, Chinese scientists developed a strategy that could potentially minimise this (see New method 'prevents spread of GM plants').

Yang told SciDev.Net that claims made by environmental organisations have posed a major barrier to commercialisation.

"[Environmental groups] say the majority of Chinese agricultural products will be polluted by the modified genes, seriously influencing Chinese exports to Europe [as the continent will ban Chinese exports due to the risk of gene pollution]," Yang says.

"This claim is threatening enough to some policymakers although there is no scientific evidence of 'gene pollution'."

David McConnell, a professor of biotechnology at Trinity College, Dublin and co-vice chairman of EAGLES, welcomes Yang's appeals. "These voices from the developing world help European scientists to deliver more correct sounds, such as scientific basis of GM foods, to European public," he told SciDev.Net.

"The GM-free organic farming in Europe [cherished by environmental groups] relies on huge government and financial support and cannot be realised among small farmers in the developing countries with urgent need for modern agricultural biotechnologies to improve their productivity."

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