China signals major shift into GM crops

Will China's farmers soon be harvesting Bt rice? Copyright: Flickr/Robert Thomson

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[BEIJING] China wants to push forward with the large-scale planting of genetically modified (GM) crops, according to its first policy document of the year.

Pest-resistant Bt cotton is already grown on an industrial scale in China.

Bt rice and phytase maize — which eliminates the need to feed extra phosphate to poultry and pigs — will now follow suit within 3–5 years, predicted Huang Dafang, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences’ Biotechnology Research Institute (see GM corn ‘improves animal feed, cuts pollution’).

This year’s "Number One Document", a publication issued annually by both the ruling Communist Party and State Council and which sets the agenda for that year’s major work, was published last month (31 January). It said that China will "industrialise" GM crop farming.

This is the seventh such document since 2004 to have concentrated on agricultural development.

Huang told SciDev.Net that the document is "the continuation of a series of policies" and has been influenced by global circumstances such as the financial crisis and the trend towards developing GM crops.

The development of new GM crops is one of the 16 major projects listed in China’s plan for scientific and technological development until 2020 (see China redraws blueprint for scientific development). The government’s plans include the development of pest- and disease-resistant GM rice, rapeseed, maize and soy, with research focusing on yield, quality, nutritional value and drought tolerance.

"To develop GM crops is the inevitable choice for developing countries to protect their food and ecological security," said Huang.

But Xue Dayuan, chief biodiversity scientist at the Nanjing Institute of Environmental Science under the Ministry of Environmental Protection, told SciDev.Net that the science, management and enforcement of legislation regarding GM crops in China are weak, increasing the chances of risk-taking.

And Fang Lifeng, director of Greenpeace China’s Food and Agriculture Project, said: "It’s too early to industrialise GM crops in China. The safety of GM food and its impact on the environment are still uncertain and there are disputes over intellectual property rights".

But Huang said: "The development of any technology is not plain sailing. We won’t stop because of being challenged".

"We will carry out deeper studies to avoid potential risks. China should build an independent GM crops research and development system to seize the market initiative."

China’s Ministry of Agriculture granted two biosafety certificates approving Bt rice and phytase maize in November 2009 (see China makes ‘landmark’ GM food crop approval).