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[BEIJING] China's "landmark" granting of safety certificates to three genetically modified (GM) food crops has provoked criticism from green groups.

The Ministry of Agriculture (MoA) gave the green light last August to two strains of GM rice and one of GM maize for small-scale field trials — the first time that China has granted safety certificates to staple food crops.

But the move did not become widely known until this month (December) when it was reported by local media.

The two rice varieties, developed by Huazhong Agricultural University, are pest-resistant, and the maize, developed by the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences, makes it easier for farm animals to digest phosphorous, increasing growth and reducing phosphate pollution.

A document published on the website of the MoA's Biosafety Management Office in October said safety certificates for the three crops are valid from August 2009 to August 2014. During this time the rice and maize will be planted on farmland in central China's Hubei and Shandong provinces respectively.

Few GM crops grown worldwide are for direct human consumption — most are processed or used in other foods.

Clive James, chair of the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications, wrote in Crop Biotech Update in early December: "China's approval of biotech rice and maize is a landmark decision which can have enormous impact in Asia".

He said China's exertion of "global leadership" could increase the adoption of biotech food and feed crops internationally, particularly in developing countries.

Yu Shunhua, spokeswoman for Huazhong Agricultural University’s news centre, told SciDev.Net: "Experiments suggest that the two strains of GM rice are safe and environmentally friendly, and can reduce the use of insecticide substantially as they are pest-resistant".

She added that further approval is required before the strains can be grown for commercial consumption.

Fang Lifeng, director of Greenpeace China's Food and Agriculture Project, said there is uncertainty about the safety of GM food and its impact on the environment. "[Those factors] and the intellectual property rights dispute make us disagree with the use of GM techniques in food and the commercialisation of such food."

But Zhang Shihuang, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences, told SciDev.Net that despite the certification, GM food crops in China are a long way off.

"China's agriculture industry is characterised by small-scale and fragmented operations, and China lacks a pipeline mechanism in agricultural technology development. These factors make the industrialisation of GM food even more difficult."