Politics / Law
China’s green light will impact in EU
GM rice looks set to arrive on plates in China within the next few years following a decision by the Chinese Agriculture Ministry’s biosafety panel. Made up of 78 high-ranking experts, the panel has for the first time ever granted its biosafety certificate to plant insect-tolerant Bt-rice commercially. Although two additional certificates are still required before the world’s largest producer commences marketing the transgenic rice, both European and Chinese experts say that the decision opens the door for other GM hybrids. Many believe that the move is a landmark that will help raise the profile of GM foods in general. In other developments, major seed and agribiotech companies have now revived frozen GM wheat programmes after cereals associations changed their minds about planting GM wheat last summer. In a trilateral statement, key Australian, US and Canadian grower organisations recognised “the important role biotechnology plays in delivering future food security.” The decision by the world’s three largest wheat exporters to rely on biotech is political dynamite for the EU – the world’s largest producer of wheat.
“If China is really serious about it and all the bureaucratic hurdles are overcome, then the cultivation of GM rice will have far-reaching positive implications for the spread of GMO technology,” Ingo Potrykus – the Swiss co-inventor of the vitamin-A-rich Golden Rice – told EuroBiotechNews. Xingwang Deng, a geneticist pursuing research at both University of Beijing and the elite US university of Yale, is convinced that “the world’s first genetically-modified rice will be a door-opener for other rice varieties grown in the area.”
The GM crop, which Deng says “could be commercially planted in 2 or 3 years,” has been in development since 1998 at Huazhong Agricultural University in Wuhan. The team under Qifa Zhang has established a marker-free transformation protocol to transfer the Bt-toxin into the grain, which is a staple for half the world’s population. In productivity testing, which is carried out before GM rice receives the Chinese biosafety certificate for commercial acreage for initially 5 years, the Bt63 strain was re-crossed into the highly-profitable hybrid rice variety Huahui No. 1. According to Chinese officials, the insect-tolerant GM rice brings an 8% higher yield and an 80% reduction in pesticide use. According to a 2003 analysis from Jikun Huang, the director of the Centre for Chinese Agri-policy in Bejing, full adoption of GM rice in China would bring a net benefit of around EUR3bn per year to the country’s economy.
Decision with global repercussions
According to Deng, Bt63 is only the beginning. “China has invested more in rice improvement than any other country in Asia during the last 10 years, and there are a lot of GM varieties in the pipeline (see table, p. 10) just waiting for the green light from Beijing.” For political reasons, the Chinese government has held back on a decision to go ahead with GM rice since 2004, when Bt63 was first ready for commercialisation. Beginning in 2006, major trading partners have steadily complained as traces of the unapproved Bt63 rice turned up in imports in Germany, Britain, France, Switzerland, Japan, Thailand and New Zealand. The European Commission has ordered stricter testing for all products containing rice that are imported from China.
The decision to commercialise GM rice had to come from the top levels of the Chinese government, according to Robert Zeigler from the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Phillipines. In summer 2008, Beijing sent out the first strong signal when Premier Wen Jiabao said “to solve the food problem, we have to rely on big science and technology measures – rely on biotechnology, rely on GM,” before rolling out a US$3.5bn R&D initiative on genetically modified plants to secure its food supply. Demand is growing. According to UN estimates, China’s population of 1.3 billion will need 30% more rice in 2020 than today.
European experts see China’s decision as a signal with global consequences. Concrete estimates on the impact it might have on the rest of the world are expected in mid-February, when ISAAA chief Clive James is to present his annual report providing concrete figures on the global GM acreage pattern. “The question is – what percentage of the 650 million tonnes of rice produced annually will be GM?” says Marnix Peferoen, the head of rice research at BASF subsidiary CropDesign in Ghent (Belgium). Industry experts estimate that if adopted by farmers, GM rice could be planted on 15 million hectares in China alone. That translates into 96 million tonnes a year, or 75% of China’s annual rice consumption. GM rice could soon account for approximately one quarter of worldwide production.
Will the battle move to Europe?
When it comes to GMOs, the easy-to-reach fruit has already been harvested, says Jens Lerchl, managing director of SunGene, a BASF Plant Science company. Next up are crops like rice and wheat. The latter could have a major impact on Europe, as the EU is the largest wheat producer in the world.
In 2004, GMO opponents in Europe prematurely began celebrating the demise of GM food when Monsanto officially terminated its programmes to develop GM wheat, giving as a reason rejection of the crop by export-orientated wheat farmers in the US concerned about resistance to GMOs in their markets in Europe and Japan. But last year, Monsanto restarted its GM wheat programmes, acquired Montana-based wheat specialist WestBred, and announced it will bring the first GM wheat varieties to the market by 2020. Around 75% of US farmers also revealed in a poll that they would be willing to cultivate GM wheat.
The change of heart appears to be due to economic factors. Wheat production has been under pressure from competing biotech crops, which achieved higher productivity in 2008 – a year that saw a decline in wheat production. “If wheat continues on a non-biotech course, then farmers will continue to devote a greater share of their acreage to biotech crops, where profitability is relatively greater, resulting in lower world wheat production than would otherwise be the case,“ the wheat growers’ associations from the US, Canada, and Australia said in a joint statement in the spring of 2009.
The change of course among the three largest wheat-exporting nations puts additional pressure on the EU. The organisations say that they “will work towards the goal of synchronised commercialisation of biotech traits in our wheat crops,” because they “believe it is in all of our best interests to introduce biotech wheat varieties in a coordinated fashion to minimise market disruptions.” The clear intention to develop wheat that is genetically engineered to resist drought, pests and pesticides is being picked up in the industry. According to Lerchl, most large agri-biotech companies have resumed GM wheat programmes.
The conceivable large-scale cultivation of GM crops feeding over 70% of the world’s population poses a huge problem for the EU. It cannot act against the will of its citizens, but also cannot afford to ignore global market forces.
A recent survey on attitudes towards GM foods could point the way to an eventual resolution. While a majority of Germans still say they wouldn’t buy GM foods, more than 55% of the younger generation (14 -19 year-olds) would now accept them provided it can be proven that they are not harmful to health. But will others in Europe agree?