China Has Appetite For Gene-Altered Food

Veronique Mistiaen
March 5, 2000
The Washington Times

China is wholeheartedly embracing genetically modified foods as a key to feeding its growing population, rejecting fears of the new technology that have swept Western Europe and sparked a burgeoning campaign by environmentalists in the United States.

Within the next five to 10 years, half of China's fields will be planted with genetically modified (GM) rice, potatoes and other crops, said Chen Zhangliang, vice president of Beijing University.

"In China, the push for GM products is unstoppable," Mr. Chen last week told a conference sponsored by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), which groups the world's wealthiest nations.

China, he said, has 23 percent of the world population but only 7 percent of the arable land; without the increased yields and added nutritional value from genetically modified crops, it won't be able to feed its people.

Mr. Chen's remarks belied the conventional wisdom in Europe, where health fears have prompted consumers to reject genetically modified foods and environmentalists have ripped up experimental plots of gene-altered grains and vegetables.

Schools throughout Europe refuse to feed genetically modified crops to children. Wales is mulling whether to follow several regions in France by declaring itself a "GM-free zone."

Even in the United States, where consumers have been eating gene-altered foods for more than a decade, environmental groups have sought, with limited success, to convince consumers they are unsafe.

Mr. Chen told the conference of more than 400 scientists, government officials and environmentalists from 29 nations of China's enthusiasm for products that can produce higher yields with less fertilizer and fewer pesticides.

China, he said, simply cannot afford to reject the new technology.

He said that because worms in corn have become resistant to pesticides, schoolchildren in rural areas are routinely sent to the fields to remove the worms by hand. "They bring the worms back home to feed the chicken, and the chicken die of the pesticides," he said.

Critics warn that gene-altered plants could unwittingly introduce mutations that make healthy foods harmful or unintentionally create new diseases or plagues caused by killer pests.

They also warn that multinational corporations will use the technology to monopolize global farming by becoming the only source of fertile seeds.

But supporters say gene-splic-ing technology can create crops that can grow on land that could not otherwise be cultivated because it is too dry. It can also produce plants with a built-in resistance to disease and pests or plants that thrive with only a fraction of the chemical fertilizers typically used.

Not all the conference's delegates believed that genetically modified food technology offered a solution to world's hunger.

Suman Sahai of the Gene Campaign in India said a third of the country's harvest is currently lost to poor storage and pests such as mice.

Better storage methods would be more useful than genetically modified crops, she said.

The three-day OECD conference sought, with little success, to untangle issues in what has become an emotionally overcharged debate.

But participants generally agreed that hundreds of millions of people in the United States, China and other parts of the world have consumed genetically modified food during the past 10 years without any apparent ill effects.

Experts reported that tests on consumers of gene-altered food had thus far failed to discover any significant toxic or allergic effects.

Whenever there have been indications of unacceptable side effects, experts said, products had been prevented from coming on the market.

At the same time, participants stressed the need to remain vigilant and to study long-term effects of the technology, which are still unknown.

"I am not saying it's dangerous, but that we should be careful and always expect that we are confronted with the unexpected," said Hans Gunter Gassen, a professor at Darmstadt Technical University in Germany.

Sharing Mr. Gassen's caution, the conference called for improved and continued testing of genetically modified varieties, as well as long-term monitoring of people who eat them.

Participants also agreed that the GM debate largely centers on the issue of benefits and risks and that the balance between the two varies among different regions of the world.

"It is not surprising, for example, that consumers in Western countries are rejecting GM food because they see no benefits, only potential risks," said Gordon Conway, president of the Rockefeller Foundation.

In the developing world, the benefits seem more apparent as genetically modified foods, such as golden rice with added vitamin A or protein-rich sweet potatoes, could help alleviate malnutrition and diseases, experts said.

Environmental groups rejected the conference's recommendations because, said Benedikt Haerlin of Greenpeace International, "the release of genetic pollution is irreversible."


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