China sows seeds of GM crop expansion

BY NICK NUTTALL, ENVIRONMENT CORRESPONDENT

Japanes version

CHINA has begun a huge push to commercialise genitically modified crops, with around half of its fields expected to be planted with GM rice, tomatoes, sweet peppers and potatoes in five to ten years.

Professor Zhangliang Chen, the vice-president of Beijing University and a leading scientific adviser to the Chinese Government, said the rise of GM crops was now unstoppable. He was speaking during a conference in Edinburgh involving more than 400 scientists, environmentalists and policymakers, called by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development to provide advice on GM issues.

The wave of public concern in Britain had slowed down the pace of GM development, but farmers in China were impressed by reduced pesticide and herbicide requirements and bumper yields from GM crops, Professor Chen said. He estimated that there were now at least 1,482,000 acres - an area twice the size of Kent - of GM crops in China but the true area might be as high as two million acres.

Last year Arpad Pusztai of the Rowett Institute in Scotland triggered alarm over the safety of GM foods after claiming that rats fed potatoes altered with a snowdrop gene suffered stomach damage. But Professor Chen said China had carried out exhaustive trials with a range of GM foods on rats. He said the work, expected to be published soon, compared the condition and weights of the vital organs of rats fed GM foods with those on conventional diets. "There were no significant differences," Professor Chen said.

Dr Pusztai and other scientists have raised concern that once a new gene, for example for pest resistance, was inserted in a plant's DNA it could "jump around" into different locations of the cell nucleus over several generations. This, critics argue, can lead to the inserted gene interacting with existing genes in novel and unforeseen ways. But Professor Chen said China had carried out detailed genetic studies on hundreds of crops and found that the DNA of 96 per cent of GM plants remains stable, as in the control.

He said the booming Chinese population threatened a food crisis which only genetic engineering could solve

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