After strict testing, the Chinese Ministry of Agriculture has awarded its first batch of safety certificates for foreign genetically modified crops used for processing purposes in China, with the first given to US biotech giant Monsanto. Scientists say the government's official seal of approval is a good indication that transgenic products are safe.
A genetically modified crop plant contains a gene or genes that have been artificially inserted, instead of the plant acquiring them through pollination. The inserted gene sequence may come from a related plant, or from a completely different species. Since the early 1990s, GM crops have been widely used in the United States, as well as some other countries.
Dr. Li Yongchun works at the State Key Laboratory for Agro-biotechnology of Chinese Agriculture University. He says genetically altered crops have particular advantages.
"Depending on where and for what purpose the plant is grown, desirable genes may provide features such as higher yield or improved quality, pest or disease resistance, or tolerance to heat, cold and drought."
Furthermore, transgenic technology enables plant breeders to bring together in one plant useful genes from a wide range of living sources, not just from within the crop's species or from closely related plants. It can therefore generate more useful and productive crop varieties containing new combinations of genes.
However, the introduction of transgenic crops and foods has generated a number of questions about possible negative consequences. Since early 1998, no new strains of genetically modified foods have been approved for use in Europe, though there were already 18 kinds of transgenic foods there. Li Yongchun notes there are two main concerns.
"One is food safety. For example, we might see an increase in the number of allergic reactions to food as a result of genetic engineering. But until now there is no evidence that transgenic foods pose more of a risk than conventional foods."
The other concern is about whether the goods are safe for the environment. For instance, hybridization of crops with nearby weeds may enable weeds to acquire undesirable traits, such as resistance to herbicides. But now many ways have been found to prevent this.
Li yongchun says there are other concerns about health and environmental safety. However, either there is no evidence of a problem or scientists have found ways to prevent such problems from arising. Bearing such things in mind, the Chinese government has paid much attention to China developing its own genetically modified products.
"The state Hi-Tech Research and Development Program, or 863 Program, has a special item of transgenic biotechnology. With huge financial support, our laboratory has developed pest-resistant maize, virus-resistant wheat and drought-resistant corn."
Reports say six strains of Chinese-developed transgenic crops have now been put into production. And with more and more foreign GM altered crops entering China, Chinese consumers can easily find labeled transgenic foods on the shelves of supermarkets.
(CIR.com March 1, 2004)