Seeds of Ignorance
By Lin Gu
South China Morning Post
July 14, 2005
'Mainland farmers are continuing to grow GM rice against both Chinese law and the advice of concerned critics, due in part to the efforts of an eminent scientist.'
Tian Zihai of Zhongzhou village in Hubei province was among the first farmers to grow genetically modified (GM) rice, although China has not approved its commercial release. He bought two kilograms of GM rice seed in 2000 from a sales manager of the provincial seed company who said the new seed would create cost savings on pesticide and labour.
Mr Tian had no idea that the seed was genetically engineered to produce inbuilt pesticide, and that state law forbids its sale. All he knew was that the seed did prove effective in resisting pests, so he bought more the next year. Now the Tians grow about 0.7-hectare of GM rice a year, selling some and saving the rest for their own consumption.
Mr Tian dismissed any note of caution about a rice mutation that even pests dare not eat. "Look, I have eaten it for four years with no problem at all," he said, smiling reassuringly. Encouraged by Mr Tian's "success", the local seed station started to introduce the "magic seed" in 2003.
Also encouraged was Zhang Qifa, China's leading biotechnology scientist, who conducted the mainland's largest field trials on GM rice. When interviewed by Newsweek in December last year, Professor Zhang mentioned that farmers near the GM test areas in Hubei had grown and eaten such rice without any side effects. The scientist was quoted as saying: "A local company got some of the GM rice seed and began selling it to local farmers."
The claim triggered six undercover investigations in Hubei by the environmental group Greenpeace. Until April, when Greenpeace exposed the illegal growing and trading of GM rice in the province, few locals were aware that they had violated the law.
A two-day trip in Wuhan and Xianning made by this journalist in May, a month after Greenpeace announced its findings, found four out of the seven retailers investigated had sold anti-pest rice seed. Most investigations identified Professor Zhang - who works at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, and the Huazhong (Central China) Agricultural University - as the source of the illegal grain.
Greenpeace collected rice samples from the Hubei market and sent them to the GeneScan laboratory in Germany for transgenetic DNA testing, which proved they had GM traits identical to those long researched by Professor Zhang's team.
But the Ministry of Agriculture (MOA) refused to accept the test results, on the grounds that the standards might differ from China's. The ministry said it would rely on the findings of an investigation conducted by the local government.
In response to Greenpeace's appeal for urgent action to stop the spread of GM rice, Fang Xiangdong, vice-director of the MOA's bio-safety office, said: "We have to exercise extreme caution to find concrete evidence, so that serious legal action can be taken." That extreme caution is understandable, given Professor Zhang's prominent status. Among his multiple titles he also serves as vice-chairman of the China Association of Science and Technology, the mainland's highest government -controlled civil scientific organisation.
While awaiting reports from Hubei, the MOA issued a circular on April 27, requiring a nationwide investigation into the status of GM crops in field trials. To date, there are still no reports from Hubei and no sign that the MOA is going to make any more public announcements.
In fact, the local authorities did take action long before Greenpeace's investigation. One industry insider said that as early as last autumn, Hubei authorities had already conducted investigations into violations of bio-safety regulations and "punished some wrongdoers according to law", although they would not give details.
A newsletter, printed one month ahead of Greenpeace's April announcement, by a local agricultural technology centre in Jiangxia district on the outskirts of the provincial capital Wuhan, said that anti-pest rice seed is "a type of crop forbidden to grow by the country, because it may not be good for human health, and farmers must not buy and grow it".
Zhang Liangxing, manager of the centre, said the local government tried to halt the harvesting and sale of GM rice last year, but the ban was difficult to implement because farmers were so much in favour of the seeds.
The manager said Professor Zhang initiated the field trials of GM rice and that when the seed appeared on the market, it was at higher-than-average prices. "Even if Professor Zhang himself didn't sneak the seed into the market , people around him could have done," the manager said, adding that "as someone working for a state-owned agricultural centre, I would never sell a GM seed before its safety has been proven".
"China has a very strict legal system to regulate its seed market and GM crops, and we are regularly monitoring what's happening in the fields," said the MOA's Mr Fang.
Some, however, find that less than satisfactory. "The Hubei scandal shows that the government failed to control GM rice at the research stage, so how will it regulate large-scale commercialisation?" said Sze Pang Cheung, campaigner for Greenpeace China.
Yang Xiongnian, deputy director of the MOA's science, technology and education department, said: "We cannot guarantee the problem will disappear, given that China has more than 90,000 seed retailers and some profit-driven individuals may want to test the law."
Still, the man at the centre of the storm remains silent, despite repeated media inquiries. Five years ago, Professor Zhang began the process of applying for safety certification for his GM rice seed - a prerequisite for commercial release. He has conducted all the required procedures, such as field trials, environmental release trials, and pre-production trials - large-scale farmer field trials across Hubei's five counties. When final approval for commercialisation will come remains anyone's guess.
Last year, Professor Zhang and 15 other scholars, including the leading biotechnologists in the country, filed a report to the State Council, urging early approval of a commercialisation permit and complaining that "over-strict" bio-safety regulations had slowed the industrialisation of GM technology and contradicted "the strong need for new technology among Chinese farmers".
On June 22, the MOA's bio-safety committee held its biannual meeting where experts were invited to give their views on the safety issues involved in growing GM crops. However, to the chagrin of GM proponents, commercialisation has remained merely a topic for discussion.
China has ploughed millions of yuan into biotechnology, with GM crops at the cutting edge of the research. Professor Zhang's national plant gene centre alone received 15 million yuan from the Ministry of Science and Technology in 2002, in addition to the 56 million yuan he received for research into GM rice.
China's largest investment in biotechnology, however, "puts pressure on scientists to deliver something", said James Keeley, a British researcher studying China's biotechnology policy. "It is a problem when you have this high-level investment, because at some point policymakers are going to ask, 'what are the benefits of spending this money on biotech research if we are not going to use it?'"
One official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said: "Much of China's rice research funding goes to Professor Zhang." Professor Zhang has signed a contract with the Ministry of Science and Technology, which has set a timetable for the industrialisation of GM crops. It is possible that Hubei is being touted as a "we did it first" model to press for official recognition, as was the case with GM cotton in China.
That could well be the case, according to one Beijing-based scientist. "In some countries, popularisation happened before there were standardised regulations. It's such a nice technology, and farmers just can't wait."
That was also the case for one of China's neighbours, according to Mr Keeley. Indian authorities had long refused to commercialise anti-pest GM cotton, but scientists deliberately gave the cotton seeds to farmers and it was soon widely grown across one province. Due to their popularity among farmers, crops from the seeds quickly spread out of control. "Because it looks embarrassing, given that you can't enforce regulations, or you're persuaded that since farmers want it, you should just let them have it," Mr Keeley said.
Indeed, farmers like Mr Tian are always open to new technology, although he has no idea whether it's legal or not. But a seed retailer in Jiangxia sounds a cautious note: "Our country has not clearly stated whether GM rice can do us any harm or not. Even if we're OK, how about our children, and theirs?"
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