China’s Ministry of Agriculture has decided not to renew biosafety certificates that allowed research groups to grow genetically modified (GM) rice and corn. The permits, to grow two varieties of GM rice and one transgenic corn strain, expired on 17 August. The reasoning behind the move is not clear, and it has raised questions about the future of related research in China.
The ministry, with much fanfare, had approved the GM rice certificates in August 2009. The permits enabled a group at Huazhong Agricultural University in Wuhan to produce two varieties of rice carrying a gene from the Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) bacteria that provides pest resistance. At the same time, the ministry approved production of a corn strain developed by the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences' Biotechnology Research Institute in Beijing. Researchers had altered the corn so that kernels contain phytase, a livestock feed additive that boosts absorption of phosphorus, which enhances growth. All of the certificates were valid for 5 years.
Since the certificates were issued, however, public skepticism about the benefits of GM crops has grown in China. Some scientists conducting GM plant research have been attacked when giving public lectures.
Why the ministry allowed the certificates to lapse is in dispute. Some environmentalists say public worries about GM crops played a decisive role. "We believe that loopholes in assessing and monitoring [GM] research, as well as the public concern around safety issues are the most important reasons that the certifications have not been renewed," writes Wang Jing, a Greenpeace official based in Beijing, in an e-mail to ScienceInsider.
Others believe agricultural economics also influenced the decision. China has nearly reached self-sufficiency in producing rice using conventional varieties, so the ministry has decided there is no need to commercialize Bt rice in the near future, says Huang Jikun, director of the Chinese Academy of Sciences' Center for Chinese Agricultural Policy. He says that with commercialization off the table, there was no point in renewing the certifications. Huang says "rising public concerns [about the] safety of GM rice" likely also played a role.
Whatever the reason, the decision marks an abrupt change in fortunes for transgenic rice in China. Five years ago, "China was widely expected to soon put GM rice on the country’s dining tables," wrote Cao Cong, a China policy expert at University of Nottingham in the United Kingdom, in a post on The Conversation, an Australian website. The Bt rice project "is now to all intents and purposes dead and buried," he wrote, blaming an "anti-GM movement whose power and influence are more than matched by its fervour and sheer, undiluted paranoia."
Huang says this decision does not reflect a change in China’s overall policy regarding agricultural biotechnology. The government is increasing its support for Bt corn research, other specialists note; GM corn has faced less public opposition, in part because it is primarily fed to livestock.
The researchers behind the affected GM crops could not be reached for comment.