Should China grow GM rice?

There’s an interesting piece in the China Daily today that brings together three contrasting views on China’s decision to allow the cultivation of genetically-modified rice. One of the authors, Wang Chaohua, is a physical chemist who has conducted soybean and research for the US Department of Agriculture: he is extremely sceptical about the supposed benefits of the two new strains of rice, notes the ‘scary fact’ that GM seeds may be unable to adapt to sudden changes in climate, and points out that GM foods ‘have the potential to cause serious health damage even in a very short period’ and, worse still, to cause ‘irrecoverable damage to the soil.’

Another contributor, journalist Xiong Mei, reckons that the real issue here is not safety, but consumer choice: can the Chinese Ministry of Agriculture guarantee that those who don’t want to eat GM foods can avoid them? (Judging by the food scares of recent years and the notorious prevalence of fake products in China, one would guess not…). “If the ministry’s decision to conduct trials with GM rice seeds is irreversible,”, she says, “effective measures should be taken to ensure the fields it is planted on are segregated and do not pollute non-GM rice fields.” (As far as I’m aware, it’s virtually impossible to segregate GM and non-GM crops, because of the free movement of pollen and seeds, as we’ve seen in other countries.)

The third voice is that of Robert Paarlberg, the B.F.Johnson Professor of Political Science at Wellesley College in Massachusetts. He argues that anti-GM activists in Europe and  China just won’t admit “that Europe’s top scientists have long since found today’s genetically engineered foods to be just as safe as conventional foods” – but he also implies that his confidence in their safety comes from the fact that there has been “no documented evidence of any new harm” from GM foods in the last fifteen years. (Is fifteen years long enough to assess the long-term effects of irreversible changes to our agricultural and food systems?) Professor Paarlberg’s language is notably less restrained than that of the other two writers: he dismisses contrary arguments and charges as ‘bogus’, ‘ridiculous’ and ‘laughable’.

It’s interesting to see a debate on such a politically-charged topic in the China Daily…

3 Responses to “Should China grow GM rice?”

  1. Philip

    There is an interesting article at the Skeptic’s Health Journal Club about a former Pfizer microbiologist who claims she was infected during research by a genetically modified virus and is suing Pfizer. If you are interested there is more on it here,

  2. Peter

    What’s particularly interesting about the arguments advocating the use of GM produce is the claim that there are no evident ill effects given the exposure period of the 15 years or so that North American consumers have been employed as unsuspecting guinea pigs.

    Like a lot of other man manifested creations of the modern age, it’s chronic exposure (over a significant amount of time – one’s life maybe?) that’ll prove most telling – b/c of the pervasive nature of wanting results/things NOW, the prized acute exposure -> result is lacking in this instance, but should this in and of itself discount any potential effects that may arise decades from now?

    Leave the consumer to exercise choice – this does require education and/or awareness which are highly lacking in parts of the world where GM food is ubiquitous.

    The other argument usually lobbied is that people have been fomenting new breeds ever since man has farmed. While this is true, the crossbreeding involved used genes from the same species or closely related ones as opposed to inserting a genetic segment (say) from an earthworm into a strain of wheat to make it more resistant to certain diseases. The science doesn’t articulate what this produces as regards to potential long-term harm nor does it speak to the integrity of the resulting hybrid.

    If you are the sum constituents of what you consume, do you really want your body to reflect DNA of foodstuffs you normally wouldn’t eat?

    The race towards modernity for China may not end up as how the governing party envisions when all is said and done…

  3. Mart

    I’m always getting a bit tired of the pro GM’s. It supposedly solves a problem that wouldn’t be there if everyone ate a bit less animal proteins. GM only serves big agri and you can wait until they will get bitten in the tail by a non gm modified diseasse/animal.

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