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Thursday, 24 January, 2002, 19:48 GMT
GM crops find friends in China
Man in rice paddy   AP
Rice is only one of the food plants Chinese scientists are working to modify
Alex Kirby

Evidence is emerging that China is taking the potential of genetically modified (GM) crops seriously.

Researchers found that China accounts for more than half the developing world's expenditure on plant biotechnology.

Where there are real, tangible benefits to be gained from advanced plant biotechnology, this science can be put to use effectively

Prof Julia Goodfellow, BBRSC
It is working on more than 50 plant species, with a wide-ranging list of GM food plants. The researchers say China's experience proves that GM crops have a role to play in poorer countries.

What is happening in China appears to be at odds with the widespread rejection of GM technology in many other - particularly European - countries.

The researchers, from China and the US, report their findings in the journal Science.

They carried out a survey which they say covered approximately 80% of the nation's plant biotechnology research laboratories in nine provinces and two municipalities.

Keen to experiment

On the basis of the results, they say China "is developing the largest plant biotechnology capacity outside North America".

Cotton plant   Monsanto
Farmers like GM cotton (Monsanto)
They write: "China is accelerating its investments in agricultural biotechnology research and is focussing on commodities that have been mostly ignored in the laboratories of industrialised countries.

"Small farmers in China have begun to aggressively adopt GM crops when permitted to do so."

The survey identified more than 50 plant species and more than 120 functional genes which scientists were using in plant genetic engineering.

From 353 applications between 1996 and 2000, the Chinese Office of Genetic Engineering Safety Administration approved 251 cases of GM plants, animals and recombined micro-organisms for field trials, environmental releases or commercialisation.

Promise against pests

Approval was given to 45 GM plant applications for field trials, 65 for environmental release, and 31 for commercialisation.

Transgenic rice resistant to three major pests - stem borer, planthopper and bacterial leaf blight - have passed at least two years of environmental release trials.

GM wheat resistant to barley yellow dwarf virus is undergoing field trials, and experiments are under way on GM potatoes and peanuts.

Unlike the rest of the world, the authors say, where most plant biotechnology research is financed privately, the Chinese Government is responsible for almost all funding.

It plans to increase research budgets by 400% before 2005.

The first large-scale commercial use of a GM crop involved cotton, incorporating a gene isolated from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis.

The authors say: "Response by China's poor farmers to the introduction of Bt cotton eliminates any doubt that GM crops can play a role in poor countries.

Safer farming

"From only 2,000 hectares (5,000 acres) in 1997, Bt cotton's sown area grew to around 700,000 ha (1,700,000 acres) in 2000.

"The average farm size of the typical cotton farmer in the survey sample was less than 1 ha (2.47 acres)."

Petunias   BBC
GM petunias have had their colours changed
The farmers reduced pesticide use by an average of 13 sprayings per hectare per season, a reduction of 49.9 kilograms (110 pounds), and a saving of $762 (536). Their production costs fell by 28%.

They also reduced their use of toxic pesticides, organophosphates and organochlorines, by more than 80%.

Only 4.7% of farmers planting Bt cotton complained of pesticide-linked health problems, compared with 11% of farmers using both Bt and unaltered varieties, and 22% of those using non-Bt cotton alone.

Wider use

Professor Julia Goodfellow is chief executive of the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC).

She told BBC News Online: "China has a unique problem in feeding over a fifth of the world's population using only 7% of the world's cultivable land.

"The report shows that where there are real, tangible benefits to be gained from advanced plant biotechnology, this science can be put to use effectively.

"It could prove a vital resource in other developing nations where there is an express need for the often unique benefits it can bring."

See also:

07 Dec 01 | Sci/Tech
GM foods safe say supporters
28 Nov 01 | Sci/Tech
Mexican study raises GM concern
09 Sep 01 | Sci/Tech
GM crop trials 'flawed'
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