It will be at least a couple of years before any genetically modified (GM) rice is consumed in China, a Ministry of Agriculture official said on Thursday.
Agricultural authorities are currently examining several strains but, until yesterday, no safety certificates had been granted.
The ministry's biosafety committee is assessing several insect and disease-resistant rice crops, and is likely to make decisions early next year.
Even if any of these strains are certified, they will have to undergo up to two years' field studies before proceeding to commercialization, said biosafety office director Fang Xiangdong.
The biannual GM organisms safety assessment meeting held this week in Beijing has stirred widespread attention among the public, as it might lead to commercialization of genetically altered rice in China.
While the world has seen increasing growth in GM soybean, cotton, corn and rapeseed crops, GM rice has not been commercialized anywhere.
China, where rice is the main food crop, is proceeding with caution in its research and development.
In a statement made available to China Daily on Thursday, the Ministry of Agriculture said the country has made headway in GM paddy rice research in recent years.
A few developers applied for assessment of their strains this year, whose yields they claimed are able to resist pests, diseases, weed killer and can be stored for a long time, according to the statement.
The ministry declined to identify the developers, but said they are all Chinese institutions.
It is conducting food safety tests as well as assessing environmental impact, and strains will have to pass these before getting the go-ahead for small-scale trial production, the statement said.
Since 1997, China has approved field trials for rice, rapeseed, corn, wheat, potato and soybeans derived from biotechnology. It only granted safety certificates for insect-resistant cotton, tomato, pimiento and a species of morning glory.
Professor Zhu Zhen of the Chinese Academy of Sciences' Institute of Genetics and Developmental Biology is applying for safety assessment of a GM rice strain.
He said they could improve production, and reduce costs and environmental pollution through minimizing the use of pesticides.
He was not sure if the application would be approved, as the issues around GM organisms are very complicated, and the authorities are very prudent in this regard.
Although acknowledging the role of biotechnology in improving rice quality and production, Zhu Youyong, president of Yunnan Agricultural University, said that in the long run a better method of resisting pests and disease would be biodiversity.
The Beijing branch of Greenpeace yesterday expressed its concern about developing GM rice strains.
"China is a center of origin of rice," said a statement from the organization. "The biggest danger is the contamination of wild and conventional rice varieties with GM rice, which can encourage more troublesome weeds and will lead to the loss of wild species."
For commercialized GM crops, the Ministry of Agriculture said it has established a nationwide supervision and monitoring system to ensure goods are safe for people, animals and the environment.
It says it has set up biosafety branch offices at 27 local agricultural departments, has formed a risk prevention mechanism and will put GM organisms under long term monitoring.
It also requires all genetically altered soybeans, corn, rapeseed, cottonseed and tomatoes to be clearly labeled as GM products when they hit the market.
(China Daily December 3, 2004)