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Stricter Rules Needed on GMOs

Scientists are calling for stricter regulations on genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in China, saying the spread of the GMOs has become so rapid that regulation is required to minimize any possible risks they may pose to human health and the environment.

Xue Dayuan is a biologist at the Nanjing Institute of Environmental Science in Jiangsu Province and chief organizer of an international symposium on GMO safety that was held in Beijing on July 10 and 11. He expressed his concern at the symposium about the lax control of both GMO experiments and the sale of genetically modified crops.

Although scientists and policy-makers were debating whether China should introduce a GM labeling system to keep the public aware only three years ago, it now seems to have been dropped, Xue said.

"It would not surprise me in the least to hear that everyone attending this gathering ate something genetically modified in their lunch today," Xue said at an afternoon session of the symposium.

When media reports that the central government was considering a regulation governing GMOs came out three years ago, it still was a concept the public knew next to nothing about.

Yet, in only three years, GMOs have touched the lives of many. Beijing homemakers looking for inexpensive cooking oil nowadays find that they have very few options other than cooking oils made from genetically modified soybeans or corn. Almost all major brands, such as Fu Lin Men and Arawana (Jinlongyu), declare on their labels that they contain GM materials.


The spread of GM crops and foods has been so rapid in China over the past few years that concern about their health risks has spilled over from the academic sphere into the public one.

Some consumers hesitate to buy such products out of perceived safety concerns.

The international environmental group Greenpeace conducted a random survey of 600 consumers in major Chinese cities -- including Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou -- in February this year. Some 34 percent of respondents said they preferred not to eat such foods, and 70 percent said they believe that some foods contain genetically modified components that are not identified.

Scientists here, while sounding the alarm, have been carrying out experiments on a variety of GM crops to assess their possible effect on, if not risk to, human health, the environment and the ecology.

Xue said GMO regulation is no longer a question of "should we," but one of "how should we."

As early as the late 1980s, Chinese scientists began to carry out genetic engineering research on almost all major crops. More and more researchers and funds were involved in this area in the 1990s, when biology came to be regarded by science authorities as the most promising area for scientific breakthroughs.

Genetically modified organisms had been created in labs even before the central government worked out rules governing the research, let alone the commercialization of the findings.

"Basically, researchers could carry out experiments on their own on almost any plant species they were interested in at that time," Xue said. "The researchers understood the concern about GMO risks to human health and the environment, but for many these risks were not their primary concern. The main factors governing their conduct, to be frank, were their research ethics and their own consciences."

In fact, the number of genetically modified plant species created by Chinese scientists may be much higher than the general public might expect.

For instance, more than 130 types of foreign wheat genes have been tried on native wheat genes, wheat being the most widely grown crop in China. Forty-nine foreign genes have been successfully inserted into native wheat genes, according to Xiao Xingguo, a researcher from the Institute of Biology of Beijing Agricultural University.

Xiao said the first genetically modified wheat in the world was created by Chinese scientists in 1990. Now more than 50 labs throughout the country are known to be doing research in this area.

Two GM wheat types have passed provincial-level examination and five to eight types are expected to go through testing in the real environment in the next five years, he added.

Rice has been engineered, too. At least 10 GM rice field trials are expected to be completed between 2001 and 2005, with commercial application the ultimate aim, according to Guo Longbiao, a leading scientist with the National Rice Research Institute in Hangzhou, in east China's Zhejiang Province.

And with rape seed, the major source of edible oil, particularly in southern China, at least 70 Chinese institutes are now experimenting with a variety of foreign genes, with one already awaiting approval for commercial use.

"Research on GMOs in China has been growing at a speed probably higher than that in any other area in China," said Han Tianfu, another researcher from the Agricultural University. "Some of it has been and is being done without strict regulation or licensing. That makes risk control a tough job."

GM poplar trees are a case in point. Chinese scientists began to develop a pest-resistant GM poplar in the early 1990s and carried out field tests in the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region of northwest China.

Yet a regulatory issue arose, as the licensing of field tests of GM plants has customarily been conducted by the GMO Safety Office under the Ministry of Agriculture. But the State Forestry Bureau is also supposed to have regulatory power in this area, at least in part.

"If you define the GM plant in the experiment as a crop, you may have to apply for a permit from the Ministry of Agriculture," Xue said. "If you define it as a tree, you may not necessarily go to this ministry."

The poplar experiment in Xinjiang, he said, has been carried out without a permit from the Ministry of Agriculture, yet the State Forestry Bureau still has no equivalent system.

"There is urgent need for coordination between the two government bodies," he said, adding that most of the public concern has been focused on GM crops rather than GM trees.

Aside from its full-fledged research on GMOs, China remains the world's largest importer of GM soybeans, accounting for 30 percent of the total trade in the international market. More than 70 percent of China's imported soybeans are genetically modified, according to experts attending the conference.

After the GM soybeans entered China, however, efforts to prevent the imports from contaminating indigenous plants remain lax.

According to Xue, most of the soybeans imported are used to produce cooking oil at foreign invested refineries in the coastal areas, where inspection and control may prove beyond the capability of the small number of officials and experts from the GMO Safety Office.

Xue voiced his concern that some of the soybeans may have entered regions other than those of the oil producers, raising the risk of gene pollution.

Scientists have found that natural plants can be genetically altered by GM plants by what is known as gene flow or gene escape. Pollens are an ideal gene carrier.

Wild soybeans, for instance, may have their characteristics altered if planted together with GM soybeans. In the long run, the diversity of soybeans may be damaged.

Many scientists attending the Beijing symposium presented the results of their experiments on gene flow or gene escape.

A field investigation of northeastern China, the largest soybean-growing region in China, found no trace of GM soybeans nor any evidence of effects on local soybeans so far.

Another experiment in GM poplars, however, found gene flow between the GM varieties and the natural ones growing beside them in Xinjiang.

Similar results were found with GM rice, which has become the focus of debate recently among scientists, as several GM rice varieties have been created and are waiting approval for commercial use.

It is just a matter of time, Xue said, and whether people like it or not, GM products are here to stay.

(China Daily July 19, 2004)

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