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Crop crisis ignites drive for transgenic rice

Stephen Chen in Beijing
Updated on Mar 31, 2008 – SCMP

Last summer brought nothing but scarcity for the rice farmers of Licun village in Fujian province. Half of their regular strains of hybrid rice died despite an abundance of rainfall, sunshine, pesticide, fertilisers and sweat.

Their big fear is that there will be poor harvests again this year.

In the beginning, the farmers thought the seeds were the problem, so they stormed Shaowu city’s agricultural bureau demanding punishment for the “criminal” who sold them fake hybrid seedlings.

But agriculture officials said the seeds were real – the problem was the environment.

The experts said a rise by 2 degrees Celsius in average temperatures had triggered an outbreak of pests and diseases and, despite being specially bred for higher yields, the hybrid rice did not have the genetic strength to withstand the environmental onslaught. They said the farmers had to triple the amount of pesticide they usually sprayed on the crops.

Farmers were outraged. “That amount would kill me before killing the pests,” said Wang Lixian, a villager who lost nearly everything last summer.

The incident in the coastal province is not isolated. Guangdong, Guangxi , Hunan and Zhejiang have reported similar calamities in hybrid rice production, pushing rice prices up to record highs in the autumn.

The price of rice increased 9.4 per cent in 10 years, and the cost of eating out rose 4.1 per cent. In response, the Ministry of Agriculture issued an internal circular, urging research institutes to accelerate the application of transgenic (TG) technology on rice species to resist a growing number of pests and diseases caused by weather variations.

Global warming, pollution and rising food prices have put Beijing under unprecedented pressure to commercialise TG rice crops. Support from the scientific community is growing stronger as well, although some tough opposition remains.

The central government’s attitude to TG crops two years ago was cautious and its policy was strict, said Huang Jikun , chief scientist of the Chinese Academy of Science’s (CAS) Centre for Agricultural Policy. The instructions on TG technology were to “tighten control, develop gradually and apply with caution”.

But the government’s stand has changed dramatically as global warming has become a real concern and consumer complaints about soaring prices and pollution have topped the leadership’s agenda.

“The latest order is to `standardise management, accelerate [research and development] and promote applications,'” said Professor Huang, a leading supporter of TG rice on the mainland.

“That means we will have more money, fewer restrictions and a clear direction … towards commercialisation. The spring of TG rice has finally arrived.”

China leads TG rice studies. Its first commercialised species will target diseases and pests rather than nutrition, taste or yield.

Zhu Zhen, a researcher at CAS’s Institute of Genetics and Developmental Biology, said his team had come up with a competitive candidate for broad application. “Any insect that takes a bite of our rice will be poisoned and die.”

Nevertheless, convincing the general public that a crop fatal to insects is absolutely safe to humans is not easy. “But the theory is simple and straightforward,” Professor Zhu said.

The scientists took a string of genes from an ordinary bean and inserted it into the rice genome. The genetic sequence, called SCK, instructs the rice to produce a type of protein that destroys insects’ intestinal systems.

People have stomachs that produce enzymes that dissolve the protein, but because insects do not, the protein goes straight to their intestines, killing them.

“The beauty of the method is that the insects cannot develop immunity. They cannot develop a stomach like ours any time soon, can they?” Professor Zhu said.

A similar TG technology has already been commercialised on the mainland for cotton and is under cultivation by more than 7 million farmers.

“Cotton farmers have reported a significant rise of income, a reduction in pesticide used and a boost in productivity since the TG species was introduced in 1997.

“These will be a good reference for the government when they consider the commercialisation of TG rice,” Professor Zhu said.

Recent developments in the United States also offered guidance for the mainland, said Huang Dafang , a researcher at CAS’s Biotechnology Research Institute.

The US government has approved an application from the state of Kansas to cultivate and sell more than 1,200 hectares of TG rice that can be used to treat diarrhoea. The authorisation was a groundbreaking event for the large-scale commercialisation of TG rice crops.

There is a threat that the European Union and Japan might boycott China’s exports if TG rice is grown, but the price is considered small compared with the potential domestic benefit.

“Development of TG technology is an irreversible world trend … an effective measure for solving major social and economic problems such as food security, health, environment protection and energy shortages,” Professor Huang said.

It is a view shared by more and more members of the National Agricultural Transgenic Bio-safety Committee, according to Lu Baorong , a committee member who is also deputy director of the Bio-diversity Research Institute at Fudan University.

The organisation, founded by the State Council in 1999, has the final say on the commercialisation of any TG crops on the mainland.

About six types of TG rice have entered the final stage of bio-safety evaluation since 2001, but the committee members – more than 50 scientists from various disciplines – were not able to agree to approve the strains because their biological impact remained uncertain.

“Every year we receive numerous requests for commercialisation from domestic research institutes; every year we have had a huge debate; and every year we cannot reach a consensus and have to ask the applicants to do more experiments and come back with more data,” Professor Lu said.

One of the central issues is whether the artificially cultivated genetic properties, such as insect resistance, will spread to other plants and cause some unexpected, irreparable damage to biodiversity in nature.

“So far, none of the research teams has come up with enough persuasive answers to these questions,” Professor Lu said.

He admitted that the recent shift in government attitude on TG technology would have some impact on committee members.

“As a scientist, I will not vote for the commercialisation of any immature TG crop,” he said.

The committee will meet in May to discuss the issue.

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