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…