China Looking Favorably on GM Crops

Few would doubt that China is one of the fastest growing countries today. With a population already at 1.3 billion, ways to feed and employ them are shrinking. Because of this, later this month, the Chinese government plans to use $3.5 billion for research on genetically modified (GM) crops. Although China first consented to four GM crops in the late 1990s, little research or progress has been made with regard to introducing other such crops. In fact, in the last eight years only two new GM plants have been approved: poplar trees in 2005 and papaya in 2006. Of the six GM crops allowed by the Chinese government, only cotton has truly become popular. Until recently, the government has been against growing other GM staples such as rice, corn and soybeans.

Food shortages and a growing population, however, are weighing on the population and the government. According to an article in the September 5 issue of Science1, Premier Wen Jiabao stated that “to solve the food problem, we have to rely on big science and technology measures, rely on biotechnology, rely on GM.” After this, Jiabao went on to approve the GM measure in July 2007. Crops aren’t the only organisms being approved for genetic modification; livestock are being considered as well. This area, however, is not as well-researched or as developed as that of crop modification.

Outlook of Chinese GM Crops

If past results are any indication of how well China’s GM project will do, then the outlook certainly appears bright. Since GM cotton is the only crop grown in a significant quantity, it has had plenty of attention and opportunity to prove itself. GM cotton became important in China in 1997. Since then, 64 different varieties of cotton resistant to pests are grown on 3.7 million hectares. This equates to 70% of the land normally used for conventional cotton being used for GM cotton. Because the GM cotton is resistant to pests, less pesticide has been needed. This means 650,000 tons of pesticide was kept on the shelf rather than on the plants, in the rivers or in the aquifer.

Research on other important staple crops has not been totally ignored, however. In 2005 Dr. Huang Jikun, the director of the Center for Chinese Agricultural Policy in Beijing, publically acknowledged that field trials with GM rice were, so far, successful. Their studies had shown GM rice increased yield, effectively reduced the amount of pesticide needed and could soon be ready for use at the same level GM cotton had been2. The primary reason the government has shown restraint with GM rice is that it is the country’s most important and abundant crop. If GM rice is used, and it fails or fails to sell, China could be facing a severe economic crisis. Because of this and the global hesitancy or outright hatred toward GM, rice is not predicted to be used to the extent cotton is for another couple of years, according to Jikun.

This is particularly unfortunate since rice has been modified to contribute so many positive agricultural aspects. For example, a gene has been found in an unused variety of rice that allows it to survive submersion in water for over two weeks. The variety of rice that is currently used dies if submerged for such a long period of time. In Bangladesh, over a million hectares were flooded and remained so for up to three weeks. Since conventional rice was being grown, the entire rice crop died, causing economic losses of $600 million in 20073. Luckily, a small number of rice farmers were testing a GM variety. These survived and recovered even after 12 days under water; this is three times longer than what conventional rice can withstand. Although they did harvest one ton less than usual, they harvested four tons more than conventional farmers who were devastated by the flooding.

Meeting the Demand for Rice

This is not the only modified variety, however. There are others that can increase rice yield. This would be particularly important and beneficial to countries such as China since they have had to recently restrict their rice exports due to increasing demand and lessening supply. The shortfall has caused a leap in prices. In December 2007, Thai rice cost $362 per ton. By April, a mere four months later, this same amount of rice cost $1000. Although prices dropped to $720 per ton in July, this is still twice as much as the cost in December. Adding to the strain, the International Rice Research Institute has predicted that by 2015, a mere seven years in the future, the global community will need to produce 50 million more tons of rice than what was grown in 2005. This means rice production will need to increase 12% in the coming decade. Considering the problems with supply that is currently being faced, 12% is significant indeed and the reason countries such as China are finally seriously considering the advantages GM foods could provide.

Although $3.5 billion sounds like a large investment into the field of GM, this is over a 13-year period. This means approximately $269 million each year will go to the GM project specifically. This is slated to come from the local governments who own the land used to grow the GM crops and from the GM companies themselves. With these funds, the government intends to conduct research as well as initiate education programs regarding GM crops. Since modified crops have become a hotly contested issue in many parts of the world, the Chinese government wants to ensure they have to deal with as few GM-induced problems as possible. They plan to accomplish this by educating their population on the benefits economically, agriculturally and environmentally of GM products. While it is recognized that introducing a new technology such as this could lead to some problems, China’s growth rate leaves little room for indecisiveness or uncertainty as to how to feed the population both now and in the future.

Sources

1 – China Plans $3.5 Billion GM Crops Initiative, Science, September 5, 2008, pp. 1279.

2 – Science, April 29, 2005, pp. 688.

3 – Reinventing Rice to Feed the World, Science, July 18, 2008

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