Bowlful of worry
In myth, seeds of rice came to China tied to a dog’s tail, rescuing the people from famine after a time of severe floods.
Ancient writings held that grains -- rice foremost among them -- were more precious than jade or pearls.
Now China is deliberating whether to allow farmers to plant rice seed born of biotechnology, modified by scientists in the laboratory.
If China decides to go forward, it would become the first nation to commercialize this genetically engineered staple on a significant scale. It also would mark a watershed in the history of a food synonymous with Asia’s culture, potentially opening the floodgates for such crops throughout the region.
But China’s relatively swift march toward government approval has slowed in recent months, amid concerns that biotech rice could cause environmental damage or meet resistance from consumers.
There has been a fierce backlash against gene-altered food in the West, particularly in Europe. European Union countries recently required all U.S. rice imports to be tested after a contamination scare.
Awareness is growing in China that making the leap into commercialization would put the country under the microscope, internationally and at home.
“Rice is our main food. We eat it every day,” said Xue Dayuan, a researcher at the Nanjing Institute of Environmental Sciences. “There should be more debating among scientists. We need more time.”
China’s internal debate over biotech rice treads on hallowed ground. Rice cultivation goes back more than 6,500 years in Asia. Several nations, China and India among them, have laid claim to being the first to plant it.
Across Asia, it is a potent symbol, woven into religious and civil rites. In the Shinto faith, for example, Japan’s emperor embodies the god of the ripened rice plant.
“It’s like France debating whether to modify grapes,” said Duncan Macintosh, spokesman for the nonprofit International Rice Research Institute, based in the Philippines.
More practically, rice is the principal food of 1.3 billion people and the single most important crop for the world’s poor.
China, the top producer and consumer of rice, is under considerable pressure to boost its agricultural output. It has 20% of the world’s population but just 6% of its arable land.
Amid its rapid conversion of farmland and labor to industrial use, China was forced to take the rare step of importing rice in 2004, when it consumed nearly 150 million tons and produced 124 million, according to the UC Davis Agricultural Marketing Resource Center.
China has pumped billions of dollars into biotechnology since the 1980s, driven by the need to feed its growing population and a desire to stake a claim as a scientific superpower. Its research has extended to people and animals, including one well-known project to clone the panda.
To many in China and elsewhere, biotech crops are the future of farming, a way to produce higher yields and hardier plants while making agriculture less harmful to the environment and human health.
Scientists have developed genetically modified plants that are insect- and bacteria-resistant, requiring less pesticide, and strains that need less water and fertilizer. They also have targeted nutritional gaps, engineering varieties such as so-called golden rice, which its developers say would add vitamin A to the diets of many poor Asians.
Over the last decade, biotech crops have gained a foothold in 21 countries, with much of the growth fueled by U.S. agricultural giants, which have planted millions of acres of genetically modified soybeans, corn, cotton, canola, squash and papaya.
Gene-altered crops also have faced determined resistance.
Consumer groups have campaigned against them, warning that a small group of multinational corporations could come to control the seed industry through patents and that “Frankenfoods” could ultimately prove unsafe.
There is no irrefutable evidence that biotech crops pose a threat to human health, but Europe, Japan and South Korea have blocked the import of genetically modified foods, and retailers in some countries have refused to stock them.
American rice farmers, who export half their crop, have chosen not to plant biotech rice even though the U.S. Department of Agriculture has approved several varieties as safe.
Environmental groups also have raised concerns about the effects of “biotech pollution,” in which genetically modified plants mix with conventional ones through error or by being blown by the wind.
In Asia, the “mother source” of rice, the effect of such contamination could be even more profound because biotech varieties could disrupt wild species’ ability to compete in nature, said Susan McCouch, a rice geneticist at Cornell University.
“I’m not concerned about human health,” she said. “The flames may be fanned in Europe, but that’s not where we should be focusing. I’m concerned about ecological upset.”
In early 2005, after extensive field trials, China’s National Biosafety Committee approved several varieties of rice for consumption. The Ministry of Agriculture indicated that the decision to license biotech rice for commercial growth would come later that year and that the crops might enter the food chain within 12 months.
But no announcement came.
Some observers said an April 2005 report issued by Greenpeace China alleging that biotech rice, possibly from field trials, was already being sold illegally in southern China might have delayed approval.
A furor erupted after U.S. officials announced in August that an experimental strain of biotech rice had gotten into the nation’s long-grain-rice supply. Rice futures plummeted as countries blocked American imports and scientists wondered whether the system for overseeing gene-modified crops had failed.
In September, Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace reported finding products in Europe that contained modified rice traceable to Chinese field tests, indicating that unapproved material had entered the food chain.
Xue, the Nanjing Institute researcher, said China’s leaders remained divided, with those responsible for food safety and the environment wanting to go slower and those responsible for productivity, science and technology pushing to go faster.
“They are hungry,” Xue said. “They’ve paid a lot of money, so they want to see the benefits.”
The committee that will make the licensing decision meets in December, but its agenda is not public. Xue said it might take as long as two years for an announcement to come.
China is right to proceed cautiously, said Clive James, chairman of the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications, a nonprofit advocacy group.
“This is the crop of Asia, the biggest test,” he said. “They just want to be sure the world sees them not leaving a stone unturned.”
Must-read stories from the L.A. Times
Get the day's top news with our Today's Headlines newsletter, sent every weekday morning.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.