September 25, 2000
Some call it a demon that conflicts with the principle of natural selection and will bring hazards to human health. Others hail it as biological magic that can stop the fear of food shortage. Either way, genetically modified foods will no longer be something out of the reach of ordinary Chinese customers, as the research and commercialization of genetically modified crops speeds up in China. Although China started the research on genetically modified organisms (GMO) at roughly the same time as its international counterparts did, it has long remained in labs and out of the daily lives of average people. But this has changed dramatically recently as the ever-fierce debate over the safety and necessity of GMO, especially genetically modified foods, has sent shockwaves through more and more Chinese people via the media.
Questions have been raised about whether Chinese people are eating these foods and if so, whether any particular measures have been taken to ensure their safety. Scientists and government officials' answers are roughly the same: presently there are no genetically modified foods officially allowed for sale on the Chinese market, but they are likely in the near future, with China's imminent entry into the WTO and China's research and introduction of the GMO advancing at its present rate. If genetically modified tomatoes have not yet been seen on the market, some other crops have already been imported as livestock feed, such as soy from the United States. Apart from genetically modified food, which faces the brunt of criticism and concern over the safety of GMO, Chinese biologists have made solid progress in developing other GMOs, and tried to sell them. So far, six genetically modified plants, including tomatoes and cotton, have been given licences for commercial promotion by the Ministry of Agriculture, but only two types of cotton seeds have been adopted by farmers and spread to a significant part of the country. "The other four are still in the laboratories, although they were given a licence three years ago," said Li Ning, an official with the Committee of Genetics Engineering Safety under the ministry. The committee is composed of China's top biologists and some officials of the ministry, and is in charge of the annual assessment of applications for commercial promotion of genetically modified crops. According to Li, the ministry holds two rounds of such assessment annually and about 200 applications have been reviewed, with only six licensed. "The assessment process is very strict as safety has been our top concern," said Li. "But it is fair to both Chinese and foreign applicants. "There is only one set of rules for approving the applications," she added. "So far, we have not issued licences to any genetically modified grain or rape seeds."
The two types of cotton licensed were developed by the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences and the biological pharmaceuticals giant Monsanto , but both were genetically modified to prevent the boll worm, a major threat to cotton growth in China. They are now fiercely competing to allure China's cotton farmers.
Wang Qinfang, director of the Institute of Biological Technology under the academy, has been involved in the research and promotion of their anti-boll worm cotton seeds in the past years. She said their seeds had been spread to about 366,670 hectares of cotton fields across China and had significantly reduced the use of pesticide in preventing boll worms. "Boll worm is one of the most serious pests for China's cotton, which makes this genetically modified cotton seed crucial for a stable output of quality cotton," she said.
They have developed four subtypes of these cotton seeds to meet the different weather and soil conditions in different regions. Given the pesticides and labour expenses saved, she said the cost of farming could be cut by 3,750 yuan (US$451) per hectare. "The farmers call it the 'cotton of assurance' because they do not have to spend lots of time and money on pest prevention like before," Wang said.
The Monsanto China has also invested a lot in promoting its BollGard anti-pest cotton seeds in northern China, since it obtained its licence for commercial promotion. By co-operating with local seed companies, its brand took away a lion's market share in Hebei Province. Both brands are more expensive than ordinary cotton seeds. The BollGard is about 100 yuan (US$12) per kilogramme, while the academy's is roughly half that. Ordinary cotton seed is about 10 yuan per kilogramme.
But the high prices seem not to have scared the farmers off. "Many farmers found a bit more investment could save them even more, so they would not hesitate to pay for it," said Wang. "We have tried to set the price as low as possible, but the government has invested a lot in the research of this seed and costs have to be recovered, at least in part."
Wang's words reflect the general situation of GMO research and development in China. Unlike their foreign counterparts, they have been under more financial pressure than religious and ethnic pressure in conducting their research in the past decades. According to Wang, China started researching GMO in the late 1970s when genetics engineering made a great breakthrough internationally. China's research centred around a fixed goal from the very start of the research: to develop a high-yielding, pest-resistant plant in a country long plagued by food and cotton shortages. Since the early 1990s, China's research in this area saw a boom, with big and small laboratories across the country engaged in GMO research.
The Institute of Microbe Research, under the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), introduced an anti-virus, genetically modified tobacco seed and carried out field experiments in 1992. The Institute of Genetics under CAS developed eight types of anti-pest hybrid rice roughly around the same time. In the arena of genetically modified animals, China has advanced on two frontiers. One is the cultivation of high-yielding, low fat livestock for food, and the other is for medicine production. Genetically -modified high-yielding fish and low fat pigs have been created, while genetically modified rabbits and sheep have also been cultivated as "biological reactors" to produce certain antigens and proteins for medicine. Most of this research has been done and reported as good news for China's agriculture until recently, while safety has been rarely touched on as a serious issue, at least by the media. In fact, funding has been the top concern of most researchers.
The research on the anti-pest cotton was started in the early 1980s and went through the whole of the 1980s. More than 50 million yuan (US$6 million) has been invested in developing this type of cotton seed, Wang revealed, all by the government. "Even so, funding has always been a major concern throughout our research," she said, "The public influence of fears about safety has never been as important as the wish for more high-yielding, quality seeds in our research." There must be a way to see that being realized, she said.
That's why almost all the major research centres in China have engaged in GMO research and set up affiliated companies to commercialize their achievements. The Research Centre for Biological Technology of Beijing University has obtained three commercial licences for genetically -modified tomatoes, pepper and a type of flower seed. Although they have at the same time set up a company to promote their research results, the three types of seeds remain at an experimental stage. "We are now in the process of seed cultivation," said Gu Hongya, deputy director of the centre. "And large-scale application of these seeds will take some more time." The situation in the laboratory was far different from that in the real environment, which meant repeated testing of the safety of genetically modified seeds was essential, she said. Gu said their technology was mature and they expected large-scale introductions of their three types of genetically modified seeds soon. But Li, of the committee under the Ministry of Agriculture, was less optimistic, saying Gu's research was still far from reaching the stage the licensed anti-pest cotton seeds had reached.
"The licence for their seeds is to authorize them to commercially promote their achievements," she said. "But there are still a lot of tests that need to be done before we give them the final approval to manufacture their seed products." Will they be required to be labelled as " genetically modified"?
Not yet, Li said. "For the cotton seeds, farmers have shown little resistance when told about the nature of these seeds. As for food, we will work out the regulations before the day comes that genetically modified tomatoes appear on the market in China."
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Last Updated on 10/2/00