Rice is a staple food in much of Asia. For thousands of years, farmers have been cultivating and breeding rice. Biotech companies are now looking to make profits at the expense of health by using genetic engineering to alter the breeding objectives in several countries.
Rice, maize, and wheat are the world's most important crops. Rice makes up the main food source for almost half of the world's population.
Rice is grown in tropical and subtropical regions around the world. Rice cultivation is primarily concentrated in China, India, and Southeast Asia. These regions make up 90 percent of the world's rice production, mostly produced by small-scale farmers. Thailand is the world's leading exporter. The most important rice producer in Europe is Italy.
An approval application for the food and feed use of LL62 genetically modified rice has been submitted to the EU. It is still undergoing safety evaluations but is expected to pass. This GM rice cultivar was genetically engineered to be resistant to an herbicide.
Controlling weeds and pests are the main reasons why 80 percent of the world's rice fields are flooded. Rice was not originally an aquatic plant. Rather, it was adapted to flooded conditions by breeding.
Rice breeding is going on in many countries including projects being conducted at international agricultural research centres. Genetic engineering is among the various methods being used to meet breeding goals, namely, to develop robust, high yielding cultivars that require little or no spraying, custom tailored to specific regional conditions.
China, a Major Player in GM Rice
China leads the pack in rice breeding research, where hopes are high for new, insect resistant cultivars. 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.
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.
Everything from developing allergen-free rice to preventing vitamin deficiencies is being touted as the primary objective for genetic engineering projects which focus their efforts on altering rice's nutritional value.
Rice with Human Genes
The first GM food crop containing human genes is also set to be approved for commercial production.
The laboratory-created rice produces some of the human proteins found in breast milk and saliva.
The rice is a major step in so-called Frankenstein Foods, the first mingling of human-origin genes and those from plants. But the U.S. Department of Agriculture has already signalled it plans to allow commercial cultivation.
The rice's producers, California-based Ventria Bioscience, have been given preliminary approval to grow it on more than 3,000 acres in Kansas. The company plans to harvest the proteins and use them in drinks, desserts, yogurts and muesli bars and many other processed foods which will not be labelled as containing genetically modified foods once they reach the markets.
The news provoked horror among GM critics and consumer groups on both sides of the Atlantic.
GeneWatch UK, which monitors new GM foods, described it as "very disturbing". Researcher Becky Price warned: "There are huge, huge health risks and people should rightly be concerned about this."
Friends of the Earth campaigner Clare Oxborrow said: "Using food crops and fields as glorified drug factories is a very worrying development.
"If these pharmaceutical crops end up on consumers' plates, the consequences for our health could be devastating.
"The biotech industry has already failed to prevent experimental GM rice contaminating the food chain.
"The Government must urge the U.S. to ban the production of drugs in food crops. It must also introduce tough measures to prevent illegal GM crops contaminating our food and ensure that biotech companies are liable for any damage their products cause."
In the U.S., the Union of Concerned Scientists, a policy advocacy group, warned: "It is unwise to produce drugs in plants outdoors.
"There would be little control over the doses people might get exposed to, and some might be allergic to the proteins."
The American Consumers Union and the Washingtonbased Centre for Food Safety also oppose Ventria's plans.
As well as the contamination fears there are serious ethical concerns about such a fundamental interference with the building blocks of life.
Yet there is no legal means for Britain and Europe to ban such products on ethical grounds.
Imports would have to be accepted once they had gone through a scientific safety assessment.
Until now, plants with human-origin genes have been restricted to small test plots.
Ventria originally planned to grow the rice in southern Missouri but the brewer Anheuser-Busch, a huge buyer of rice, threatened to boycott the state amid concern over contamination and consumer reaction.
Now the USDA, saying the rice poses "virtually no risk". has given preliminary approval for it to be grown in Kansas, which has no commercial rice farms.
Ventria will also use dedicated equipment, storage and processing facilities supposed to prevent seeds from mixing with other crops.
The rice could also be a huge money-spinner in the Western world, with parents being told it will help their children get over unpleasant stomach bugs more quickly.
"It's the same tune over and over from the GM folks. They say it helps when in actuality it only destroys the natural balance of nature, the environment and human health, period!" said GM critic Gustavo Miller about Ventria's initiatives.