Bt- MagicIn a significant move, the Ministry of Agriculture in China has granted safety certificates to three genetically modified crop plants;two strains of GM rice and one strain of GM maize. This green signal will enable the commencement of small-scale field trials of these crops in China. This is interesting to those who have been following the intense debate raging over the GEAC’s approval to Bt  Brinjal in India. Though these approvals are only to start field trials and the actual cultivation of GM crops in China is still a far-cry, it will be interesting to see whether this move will have an impact in Asia as a whole with respect to GM technology. The two rice strains have been engineered to carry pest-resistant genes and the maize strain carries a gene that will improve phosphate digestion in animals resulting in better growth and reduction of Phosphate pollution. The former has been developed by Huazhong Agricultural University, and the latter by the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences. The approval had been granted in the month of August but it has become public only lately after recieving local media attention.

The move has drawn criticism from Greenpeace and other environmental groups that are strongly opposed to the use of GM technology. This also happens to be the first time that such a certificate has been granted to a staple food in China. The chair of the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications, Clive James, wrote in Crop Biotech Update that this is a move that will have a huge impact in Asia. Deeming the move as Global Leadership, he has envisaged an increase in adoption of feed crops as well as food crops in the region as other countries could be expected to follow China. Once again this reminds us that there are relatively few GM crops in the world that are produced for direct human consumption.

Fang Lifeng, director of Greenpeace China’s Food and Agriculture Project, has reiterated the stand that uncertainty about the safety of GM food and its impact on the environment and associated intellectual property disputes are reasons enough to disagree with the use of this technology. Food security is a matter of increasing concern in Developing countries such as ours. The rise in droughts and famines coupled with economic tribulations are putting pressure on our Governments to consider alternatives. The fact that there is only so much cultivable land and that too is fast receding is not helping matters. Crop plants have to survive much including pests and competing weeds. Organic farming is being hailed in many places including India as a safe and viable alternative to GM foods. But there are still many unanswered questions. Will organic farming be able to satisfy world hunger? Will we be able to produce more food, in a healthier better way without the usage of GM?

We are yet unable to answer these questions. GM foods are a cause of concern across the world. The EU has virtually banned GM foods and one cannot shop for them in Supermarkets. The fear that the far-reaching impacts of GM foods have not yet been studied is very real. What if we end up creating super-weeds because of unforeseen gene transfers from modified crops to natural weeds? What about studies like the one involving the Monarch butterfly where it was found that consumption of pollen from GM corn lead to death of the butterfly as opposed to the safer pollen from the non-modified crops? What about creation of super-resistant species of Bacteria at a time when we are already struggling with the menace of Super-bugs (multi-drug resistant Pathogenic bacteria) and pests? Though now, farmers are being asked to alternate GM crop with non-GM so that the resistant pests will not be specifically selected. (This is known as creating a Refuge; the non- GM plant is the refuge)

Apart from these scientific concerns there are the legal and economic implications to be looked at as well. Will the patented technologies give power in the hands of Hungry companies forcing poorer farmers to suffer unprecedented losses? (Refer to the pervious blog on Bt-Brinjal)

Well as the debate rages on we must be able to look beyond the petty concerns of vested interests and evaluate the technology for its merit alone. This having been done fairly and scientifically, we must further see to it that this does not turn into a privilege for a few while the poor farmers are left helpless. It will be of great interest to follow the trials in China and the impact it has on GM crops in Asia.

Bt- Magic