28 January 2002
China is leading the world in cultivation of GM crops
By Roger Highfield, Science Editor
While the fate of GM crops remains contentious in Britain and many other parts of the world, China is going ahead with the technology and plans to export it.
When the independent Nuffield Council on Bioethics concluded in 1999 that there was a "compelling moral imperative" to develop GM crops to fight world hunger, its report was attacked as naive and asinine by environmentalists and Third World groups.
However, a study published in the latest issue of the journal Science says China now has the biggest plant biotechnology capacity outside North America and its poor farmers are cultivating more GM plants, notably cotton, than their equivalent in any other developing country.
Around 2,000 scientists in China are now working on more than 50 species of GM plants using 120 different genes, such as rice resistant to salt and pests, disease-resistant wheat and cold-tolerant tomatoes.
China now accounts for more than half the developing world's expenditure on plant biotechnology, with 90 per cent of its field trials targeting insect and disease resistance.
Reduced pesticide use, increased health and production as a result of GM cotton growth by poor farmers "eliminates any doubt that GM crops can play a role in poor countries", said Dr Jikun Huang of the Chinese Academy of Sciences.
In China, there is no organised resistance to GM crops and "in that way it is unlike India or the Philippines or Brazil", said one of the study's authors, Prof Scott Rozelle of University of California, Davis.
China is likely to commercialise GM crops because, unlike other developing countries, "more than 95 per cent of the rice, wheat, and maize produced in China is consumed in China", he said.
The country is well placed to export its GM technology because of low costs and many well-trained scientists, says the report.
Dr Nigel Halford, a member of the CropGen panel funded by the biotechnology industry, said: "Farmers are already feeling the benefits of adopting GM crops, particularly the increased production efficiency and improved health which is due to the reduced use of pesticides."