By Third World Network
Late last year, news articles reported that China had ‘approved’ two genetically engineered (GE) rice varieties – ‘Hua Hui’ 1 and Bt ‘Shanyou’ 63. The Reuters news agency reported on 27 November 2009 that, “China has approved its first strain of genetically modified rice for commercial production… potentially easing the way for other major producers to adopt the controversial technology”.
The issue of GE rice has generated interest, as China, although already growing Bt cotton and Bt poplar, has yet to allow large-scale commercialization of any GE food crops. Moreover, rice is a staple food in China and other rice-growing nations are watching closely and may follow China’s stance on GE rice. China is the world’s largest producer of rice, much of which is consumed domestically.
A few years ago, there were numerous pronouncements that China was very close to approving and commercializing GE rice. However, the Chinese have been cautious about GE rice, subjecting it to biosafety assessment and review. Four GE rice lines have been under consideration at the National Biosafety Committee for commercial cultivation: Bt rice, a line with the Cowpea Trypsin Inhibitor (CpTI) gene; a line with a combination of CpTI/Bt genes, and a bacterial blight resistant (XA21) line. From 2004 to 2006, the National Biosafety Committee requested more studies on environmental and health impacts of the GE rice.
To be commercialized in China, a GE food crop must undergo seven stages: research, pilot experiment, environmental release, experimental production, safety certification, multi-ministerial approval and the Ministry of Agriculture’s final approval. Applications are made to the GMO Biosafety Office of the Ministry of Agriculture.
The applications for all stages of a field trial, environmental release and commercialization are referred to the National Biosafety Committee. The Committee is convened by the Ministry of Agriculture. It examines the applications and gives its recommendations to the GMO Biosafety Office. Since 2008, it meets three times a year.
Then the Ministry of Agriculture itself, or a multi-ministerial meeting in some cases such as GE rice, will decide on whether or not to issue a safety certificate for cultivation to start. These certifications are restricted to the provinces that have been identified in the applications, and are usually valid for five years depending on the crop. Without such certification, there can be no commercial planting.
It is noteworthy that biosafety certificates and commercial approvals are issued on a provincial basis and not for the country as a whole.
In the case of GE rice varieties that have been recently ‘approved’, the National Biosafety Committee has issued the biosafety certificate for the two rice varieties, and this applies only to Hubei Province. The biosafety certificate is of limited duration, valid from August 17, 2009 to August 17, 2014. It may be one to two years before commercial approval is granted, and there will be a multi-ministry committee decision on this. Furthermore, the requisite process of obtaining new seed variety registration and a production license, involving further trials and seed selling, will take at least one year, so it may be some time yet before GE rice is actually commercially grown and produced in China.
The two GE rice lines have been developed by Huazhong Agriculture University in Wuhan, Hubei Province. While the GE rice varieties are domestically developed, foreign-owned patents may still be a challenge for commercialization. At least 11 foreign patents, including patents held by Monsanto and Syngenta, are associated with the two GE rice lines that have been given the biosafety certificate. Although the local developers may have negotiated a royalty-free deal with the patent owners for research purposes, it is likely that further royalties will be charged once commercialization occurs.
The issue of several foreign-owned patents attached to GE rice had been brought to the attention of the relevant government ministries/agencies in a joint research reports by Greenpeace and Third World Network in 2008. The report called for an investigation into the matter and the long-term impacts for food security and farmers’ rights in China. The report also suggested that the government investigate and assess the benefits of other technologies, such as molecular marker assisted breeding and ecological rice farming methods. A second report in 2009 revealed more cases of a similar nature.
One of the GE rice varieties, Bt ‘Shanyou’ 63, was already the subject of controversy since 2005; the unapproved variety (both in China and other countries) had been found to be illegally sold and planted in Hubei province, had contaminated Chinese rice products exported to Europe and Japan, and has been detected in China and in various countries since then. This affected Chinese exports of speciality rice products. Thus any commercialization of GE rice in China will have to be strictly segregated and monitored, so as not to affect export markets, so long as these markets have yet to approve the GE rice varieties. As recently as July 2009, the European Union called on China to tighten export controls on rice products because shipments might contain traces of the Bt 63 strain, which is not authorized in the European Union.
The process by which the biosafety certificates have been issued has also been criticized as being untransparent. While the Ministry of Agriculture had published on its website the news that its Biosafety Committee had approved the two strains of GE rice, it did not disclose any information about the health and environmental studies involved in the certification process. The Ministry also did not reveal the names of those in the committee who made the final decision. Greenpeace China is calling for this information to be disclosed in the public interest, in accordance with the government’s information disclosure regulation.