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Top Chinese Rice Producer Now
Approves Genetically Modified Strains

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 approval of the locally-developed rice, as well as China's first GMO corn, shifts the global balance of power in food trade and could prompt other countries to follow suit, experts said.

It will also enable China, the world's top producer and consumer of rice, to grow more GMO rice amid shrinking land and water resources.

The Chinese Ministry of Agriculture's Biosafety Committee issued biosafety certificates to pest-resistant Bt rice with large-scale production to start in 2-3 years.

"We expect that with the Chinese approval of Bt rice it will be much easier for other countries to do this," said Robert Zeigler, director general at the Philippines-based International Rice Research Institute, which is developing a number of GMO strains of rice.

But Greenpeace called the move a "dangerous genetic experiment" and said it had previously exposed illegal cases of genetically engineered (GE) rice in China.

"If the Ministry of Agriculture cannot even control the illegal cultivation of GE rice, how can they manage the risks of large scale cultivation?" Lorena Luo, Greenpeace's food and agriculture campaigner in China, asked in an emailed statement.

China, which wants to raise grain production 8 percent to 540 million tonnes a year by 2020, has splashed out on GMO research, with $3.5 billion going on rice, corn and wheat.

The phytase corn was also locally developed by China's Academy of Agricultural Science and Origin Agritech Ltd.

The rice and corn strains are China's first GMO grains approved for commercial production, although it already permits GMO papaya, cotton and tomatoes.

The strains still need to undergo registration and production trials before commercial production can begin in restricted areas, which may take 2-3 years, the scientists said.

The scientists declined to be identified as the government has not officially published the information. Officials at the Agricultural Ministry's biosafety office declined to comment.

"According to our sources, our information is yes, there was a meeting of the Biosafety Committe on GE rice and corn and the meeting has granted certification," said Greenpeace's Luo.

Exports of GMO rice would be likely to face tough scrutiny abroad. Most of China's rice exports go to South Korea and West Africa, although there are buyers globally, including the United States, South America and Europe. China exports much more rice in prepared food, such as rice pasta or baby food.

The European Union's executive body, the European Commission, said in July that China needed to tighten export controls on rice products because shipments might contain traces of the Bt-63 strain, which is not authorised in the European Union.

While China is not yet growing GMO rice commercially, there are numerous field trials going on around the country.

The advent of commercial GMO production in China could affect global prices for rice, which rocketed in early 2008, sparking fears that the bedrock of Asian cuisine might be in short supply. But lower prices could also slow the spread of GMO rice.

"Suppose rice prices remain low in the next few years, countries will be reluctant to take in technology if they have some concerns about it," said Samarendu Mohanty, a senior economist at IRRI.

"If rice prices remain high, then countries will be more willing to consider Bt or any other technology to boost production," he said. "So the market has a role to play."

Reference Sources 89
December 4, 2009

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