China seen opening door soon to biotech rice

BRUSSELS, Belgium, Posted March 10, 2005, Jeremy Smith, Reuters via CropChoice.com: China could open the door to biotech rice within two years, paving the way for the GMO crop to enter the food stream across Asia, the head of a trade group said Monday.

"Rice is likely to be approved in China in the near term, maybe in two years," said Clive James, chairman and founder of ISAAA, a group with industry and public foundation support that promotes biotech as a way to halt global hunger.

"And once China approves rice, this will move through the rice countries of Asia -- like India, Pakistan and the Philippines -- where rice is king," he said in an interview.

Knocking down the barriers to using GMO (genetically modified organism) rice would be a major coup for industry and other backers of GMO crops.

Rice is the staple of half the world's more than six billion people. China has long been seen as the pioneer in GMO rice, and is the world's top producer and consumer of the commodity.

As yet no GMO rice is produced commercially, but China is at the forefront of developments and is poised to approve the commercialization of modified strains that can resist insects and diseases.

Many governments are wary about authorizing GMO crops due to consumer concern over possible risks to human and animal health. But the global biotech industry says GMO crops can help feed millions of the world's hungry, particularly in developing countries.

Pressure to launch GMO rice comes at a time when Beijing faces a tough task in raising the country's grain output and in narrowing the income gap between farmers and urban citizens.

China's 2004 rice crop is expected to rise to about 180 million tons from 161 million last year, the lowest since 1994. The country's supply deficit is around 10 million tons.

"Once China does (approves) rice, it's a momentous decision. It's the most important food crop in the world. They've worked on this very carefully and had large-scale field trials for several years, so there's a substantial database," said James, the full name of whose organization is the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications.

China is already the world's top grower of insect resistant GMO cotton, known as bacillus thuringiensis cotton, which has been effective in controlling damage from the bollworm pest.

Around 20 percent of China's annual investments in crop biotechnology were earmarked for rice, and the country looked set to become the world's second largest investor in this area after the United States, he said.

"There's fairly good evidence that in China, they are investing $200 million minimum a year, with the intention to increase that to $500 million. And that's only in crop biotechnology -- China is already a very significant player."

Maize was another area where China was likely to develop GMO strains since demand was expected to jump by 80 percent between 1997 and 2020, he said, adding that consumer demand for a richer diet meant that more maize would be used in animal feed.

"China and India alone have tremendous opportunities," said James. "The policy of China is to be least dependent on outside territories: rice, maize and, maybe in the medium term, wheat."


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