Azara Blog: GM rice study in China

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Date published: 2005/04/29

The BBC says:

Genetically engineered rice crops can cut costs for poor farmers and improve health, a new Chinese study says.

In the study, published in the journal Science, Chinese and US researchers looked at the use of insecticides in small farm trials.

They compared normal strains of rice with varieties modified to have innate resistance to pests.

Chinese GM rice has been undergoing safety trials for nearly a decade now, but is not yet fully licensed.

One of the arguments against genetically engineered crops is that they benefit the seed companies, but not the farmers.

The authors of the new study disagree.

They found that Chinese farmers using rice engineered to resist insect pests made huge savings on insecticides, compared with their neighbours who had planted ordinary hybrid strains.

This had nothing to do with any specialist guidance the farmers received, because they were left to manage their crops as they saw fit.

As well as cutting costs, the researchers say, the farmers benefited from better health.

Pesticides in China are cheap and widely used, but poison an estimated 50,000 farmers a year, up to 500 fatally.

Dr Jikun Huang, who led the study, said he hoped it would help persuade the Chinese government to license the commercial use of GM rice.

If it does, the impact beyond China's borders would be substantial.

The world's largest country would be taking a lead in commercialising a major staple GM food developed in its own labs, which could transform the GM debate across the world.

But campaigner Greenpeace expressed serious concern over the study.

Sze Pang Cheung of Greenpeace China commented: "The Science paper states that farmers cultivated the [genetically engineered] rice without the assistance of technicians, and that quite a number of the randomly selected participants grew both [genetically engineered] and conventional varieties on their small family farms."

The most worrying aspect of the study (subscription service) is that the results were obtained by "producer-recall interviewing techniques", and how does one know that the farmers didn't actively spin the results because they knew that that was what the interviewers wanted to hear.

However the results seem plausible (the point of these GM crops was to be resistant to certain insects, and if so then pesticide use could well be reduced). Of course the so-called environmentalists will never accept any pro-GM results because they have a religious objection to GM technology. (The specific Greenpeace comments about mixed-seed farms seem irrelevant, especially given that the non-GM-mixed-farm results were consistent with the totally-non-GM-farm results.)

China fortunately has a weak home-grown opposition to GM crops (it does not yet have a large enough comfortable middle class), so it is ideally placed to push this technology forward and leave the rich West (especially Europe) trailing. Needless to say the rich West may well try to blackball Chinese exports (both for anti-competitive and religious reasons) if and when GM food crops are grown in quantity there, and that could well be the main obstacle for China.

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