Spring 2008

A Tipping Point for GM Foods?

– The Wilson Quarterly

China is considering allowing genetically modified foods to be grown and sold. If they approve them, GM foods will most likely be here to stay, no matter how much the rest of the world may object.

Scientists have been working on genetically modified (GM) plants for 25 years, but the developing world has rejected virtually every bioengineered food crop. Rice is one of the world’s great staples, for example, but only Iran markets a GM version. Now China may be poised to join it. And if China goes, competitive pressures may force the rest of the world to follow.

Time was when the ability of scientists to engineer seeds to fend off insects and disease was touted as the salvation of a hungry world. But that dream has collided with consumer concerns about “Frankenfoods,” strong ­anti-­biotechnology activism, and governments’ fears of trade retaliation. GM corn and soybeans are widely grown for animal fodder in the United States and Canada, but fierce opposition from these countries’ trading partners has checked growth. Industrial crops such as GM cotton and corn, however, are commonly harvested in other countries, including China and South ­Africa.

In China, four versions of GM ­insect- or ­disease-­resistant rice have made it to the third and final stage of safety trials required by Beijing, write Jikun Huang and Ruifa Hu, of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, and Scott Rozelle and Carl Pray, of Stanford and Rutgers, respectively. But until their study, little research had been conducted on whether the crops live up to their billing. After collecting data for three years from farmers in 320 households, the researchers concluded that GM rice increases farm productivity, mostly by cutting the cost of pesticides. They found that GM rice yielded at least as much per acre—and sometimes more—while requiring only one-eighth as much pesticide. That matters a lot to China, which faces pollution and health problems as the world’s largest pesticide ­user.

Chinese authorities, having already spent several billion dollars on agricultural biotechnology research and development, are “struggling” with the issues of biosafety and the acceptability of GM rice domestically and in international trade. Three years ago, the authors wrote that China was on the threshold of commercializing GM rice. In their current report, they make no predictions on when or even if GM rice will be approved; they think China should “seriously consider” the move. Yet with rice consumption decreasing as af­fluence enables the Chinese to eat more meat and other foods, some researchers question the need for controversial GM ­rice.

Even so, given China’s vast population, GM rice could help the poor and add $4.2 billion a year to the economy, the authors write. It could also set off a global chain reaction, leading to the commercialization of GM rice, wheat, corn, and other crops, not only in China but around the ­world.

* * *

The Source: "Genetically Modified Rice, Yields, and Pesticides: Assessing Farm-Level Productivity Effects in China" by Jikun Huang, Ruifa Hu, Scott Rozelle, and Carl Pray, in Economic Development and Cultural Change, January 2008. 

Photo courtesy of Flickr/Claudio.Ar