Rice at risk
Sat 16 October 2004
Rice has been a grown around the world for over 10,000 years, it is cultivated in 113 countries and 3000 million people rely on it as a staple food. All of this is in danger as the spectre of genetic engineering creeps up on the planet's most important food crop.
It appears the Chinese government could start the planting of genetically engineered (GE) rice as early as 2005. What is for sure is that the GE industry must be cheering on the Chinese Government on GE rice as this will no doubt encourage the rest of Asia to go GE.
So why are they taking this risky step, are they tackling a major problem with their domestic rice crops? Not that we can see. Will it increase yields? Not if it follows the patterns of current lower yielding GE crops. Will it endanger the thousands of strains of non-GE rice in China? Certainly.
China is home to rice and still possesses one of the richest genetic diversities of rice in the world - boasting some 75,000 strains. Not only is rice vital to China's food supply but it is also at the heart of its culture - as with most of Asia. GE rice threatens all of this.
So it seems ironic that while China develops GE rice, the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) is celebrating 2004 as 'The International Year of Rice' and World Food Day under the slogan that 'Rice Is Life'.
"No one, except a few GE scientists and government officials, knows that GE rice may reach their rice bowls soon," said Sze Pang Cheung, Campaign Manager of Greenpeace China. "This is scandalous as rice is the staple diet for most Chinese people and it is the source of livelihood for more than 100 million farmers."
If GE rice is grown in the field, it will contaminate local varieties. Research by Chinese scientists has found that the pollen of GE rice may spread as far as 110 meters.
"If rice is life, GE rice is a gamble with our life. Moreover, GE rice can multiply and spread once released into the environment. It is a gamble with no way back," Sze commented.
To make matters worse, under Chinese regulation, there is no requirement for the public to be informed and consulted before a GE crop is approved for commercialisation. Once an application reaches the Ministry of Agriculture, the ministry will commission research institutes to carry out environmental and safety assessments, which usually last from three to six months.
Commercialisation of GE rice in China would have regional and global impact. It is widely believed that India, the second largest producer and consumer of rice, and other rice producing countries (Thailand and Vietnam), may follow China's footsteps if it commercialises GE rice. The GE industry also hopes that commercialisation of GE rice will open up the gate to other GE crops in Asia, the most important global market for the GE industry.
The way ahead
During this International Year of Rice the UN has called upon different stakeholders in the world to promote the sustainable future of rice. Here at Greenpeace we are taking this very seriously and have already organised a cyberaction sending letters to officials at the FAO to remind them that rice needs to be protected from GE at all costs - over 5400 letters have been sent.
"The future of rice should stay in the hands of those for whom rice is life, not a few GE scientists and officials," said Sze. "If we are to promote the sustainable future of rice farming, GE rice is simply not the answer."
As well as the cyberaction the "The Rice is Life Tour" in Yunnan province is taking place between 16-24 October, which has the richest diversity of rice in China. For eight days we are travelling the province with journalists, rice experts and people concerned about GE rice from Denmark, UK, Hong Kong and mainland China. During the tour we will be looking for the best ways to ensure the sustainable development of rice and safeguarding cultural traditions in the heart of one of the world's homelands of rice.
Rice farmers need to understand that the short-term productivity gains from new technologies - such as GE - are not sustainable and have will have a serious economic and cultural impact on their lives.
Despite what the biotech cheerleaders say alleviating poverty and feeding the world requires more than a technological solution. GE rice does not solve these problems. The environmental release of artificial life forms into the environmental will lead to inevitable and irreversible damage, which will in turn undermine food security and sustainable agriculture in the future.
Find out more:
Check out regular updates from the Yunnan Tour in Chinese
and in English
Learn more about the threat of GE rice in Asia, tell your friends.
Read: Rice at Risk: Will there be a choice with GE Rice?
Read: Genetically Engineered Rice: Not Sustainable Agriculture
Rice at risk (16/10/2004)
Rice at risk