The global debate over the environmental and health aspects of GM technology has now spilled over to China, writes Ding Yimin of Panos.
Faced with the daunting task of feeding a population of 1.3bn, China is turning to biotechnology as a possible scientific solution to address both food security and poverty issues. But a raging global debate over the health and environmental aspects of genetically modified (GM) food is tampering enthusiasm.
At the end of 2001, the Chinese government had approved 10 varieties of transgenic plants, including rice, corn, cotton, soybean, oil rape and potato, for environmental or field tests. However, experts say the government has been reluctant to allow their commercialisation. So far only six GM crops have been cleared for commercial production – two types of Bt cotton, a type of tomato that ripens later than usual (and can therefore be stored for longer periods), 'colour-altered' petunia flowers, and sweet peppers and tomatoes that are resistant to the virulent Cucumber Mosaic Virus. Of these, Bt cotton occupies the largest area of field planting, accounting for 35 per cent of China's total cotton acreage and making China the fourth largest GM crop producer after the US, Argentina and Canada. Although scientists have conducted largescale biological and biosafety research on major GM crops, none have yet been approved for marketing, says Professor Chen Zhangliang, president of China Agricultural University. "Transgenic virus-resistant tomato and sweet pepper have not been planted on a large scale – nor are they available in the market," he says.
However, Chen believes biotechnology is key to addressing food security and poverty issues in China: "If GM grain crops, such as rice, can be approved for commercialisation by the government, it will help reduce poverty." His comments back research conducted by British academic Michael Lipton of the poverty research unit at the University of Sussex. In his research, Lipton outlines ways in which GM crops could alleviate poverty.
Lipton argues that slower population growth in Africa and South Asia has favoured economic growth and the transmission of this growth into poverty reduction. However, he says, this works only if people can find work and afford cheap food. This is where GM crops come in.
Currently, most GM crops in wealthy countries are used as animal feed, says Lipton. In order to increase their relevance to poor countries, research would have to move in a different direction. Instead of being herbicide- resistant, for instance, crops would need to be designed to produce higher yields, be drought-tolerant, favour higher employment, have improved the nutrient status of crops and focus on staples grown and eaten by poor farmers and labourers on small farms in developing countries.
In China scientists have used GM crops mainly to increase output, upgrade varieties and improve crop resistance against pests, diseases and unfavourable environmental conditions. "The output increase of crops will no doubt better feed the impoverished in rural areas while bringing about more cash income," Chen says.
According to a 1999-2001 survey conducted by the Agricultural Policy Centre of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) of 283 farmers in Hebei and Shandong provinces, yields increased by 8-12 per cent in fields planted with Bt cotton. In cottongrowing areas along the Yellow River, more than 4m peasant farmers increased yields and reduced pesticide costs over the three years. In addition, farmers saved the time they would otherwise have spent on spraying hazardous pesticides, and the likelihood of falling sick from pesticide poisoning decreased.
Increase in output
According to Huang Jikun, a scientist at the Agricultural Policy Centre, the survey revealed a dramatic increase in farmers' incomes from Bt cotton. In 2001, the per hectare output value of cotton increased to Yn1,400 – more than double the value for non-Bt cotton. Huang says that this gain mostly benefited poor farmers.
Chinese experts say the striking fall in the number of Chinese living in poverty – from 250m in 1978 to 30m in 2001, according to official data – is partly due to scientists' success in improving crop yields by techniques such as hybrid rice breeding. "Now, it is even more important for a large agricultural country like China to develop its agriculture by transgenic technology," Chen says.
Chinese scientists and policy makers have also focused on using biotechnology to improve nutrition and health levels, pointing to the success of Swiss scientists in introducing a carrot gene into rice, which enables farmers to grow rice with a high vitamin A content and, in the process, reverse Vitamin A deficiency in developing countries.
However, the global debate over the environmental and health aspects of GM technology has spilled over to China. There is evidence that the government is serious about the issue of regulating GM crops. In January last year the Ministry of Agriculture issued new regulations on the biosafety evaluation, import and labelling of GM organisms.
"Strict measures must be taken to evaluate the research and production of GM food, lest some serious damage to human health occurs due to biosafety problems," says Yin Wanfen, a scientist with the Institute of Botany under CAS. She suggests that the key to producing safe GM food is to obtain abundant experimental and inspection data to provide a scientific basis for GM crop consumption.
Note of caution
This message appears to be sinking in: while authorities are considering the commercialisation of some GM rice species with insect-, disease- and herbicide-resistant genes, scientists are still researching the stability of these genes.
Xue Dayuan, a researcher with the Nanjing Institute of Environmental Sciences under the State Environmental Protection Administration, has written a paper that concludes that Bt cotton planting could have "adverse impacts" on the environment.
Sociologists have also joined the debate. Zhao Nanyuan, an expert in epistemology and ethics at Qinghua University, says the current global debate on the labelling of GM products and the possible adverse effects of GM organisms has sometimes been raised for political and economic reasons. The EU ban on the import of GM crops, for instance, is because of economic rather than health or scientific considerations, he feels.
Lu Feng, professor of philosophy at Qinghua University, reinforces the link that Lipton makes between poverty issues and GM technology. When people all over the world have enough food and clothing, Lu says, scientists should shift the focus of their attention. "They should dwell on those technologies that can help maintain the ecological balance and harmonise the relationship between man and nature rather than those that simply 'conquer and transform' nature."