Rice at risk

Feature story - 16 October, 2004
Rice has been a grown around the world for over 10,000 years, it is cultivated in 113 countries and 3000 million people rely on it as a staple food. All of this is in danger as the spectre of genetic engineering creeps up on the planet's most important food crop.

A girl carries a fish caught from the rice field.

It appears the Chinese government could start the planting ofgenetically engineered (GE) rice as early as 2005. What is for sure isthat the GE industry must be cheering on the Chinese Government on GErice as this will no doubt encourage the rest of Asia to go GE.

So why are they taking this risky step, are they tackling a majorproblem with their domestic rice crops? Not that we can see. Will itincrease yields? Not if it follows the patterns of current loweryielding GE crops. Will it endanger the thousands of strains of non-GErice in China? Certainly.

China is home to rice and still possesses one of the richest geneticdiversities of rice in the world - boasting some 75,000 strains. Notonly is rice vital to China's food supply but it is also at the heartof its culture - as with most of Asia. GE rice threatens all of this.

So it seems ironic that while China develops GE rice, the UN's Foodand Agriculture Organisation (FAO) is celebrating 2004 as 'TheInternational Year of Rice' and World Food Day under the slogan that'Rice Is Life'.

"Noone, except a few GE scientists and government officials, knows that GErice may reach their rice bowls soon," said Sze Pang Cheung, CampaignManager of Greenpeace China. "This is scandalous as rice is the staplediet for most Chinese people and it is the source of livelihood formore than 100 million farmers."

If GE rice is grown in the field, it will contaminate localvarieties. Research by Chinese scientists has found that the pollen ofGE rice may spread as far as 110 meters.

"If rice is life, GE rice is a gamble with our life. Moreover, GErice can multiply and spread once released into the environment. It isa gamble with no way back," Sze commented.

To make matters worse, under Chinese regulation, there is norequirement for the public to be informed and consulted before a GEcrop is approved for commercialisation. Once an application reaches theMinistry of Agriculture, the ministry will commission researchinstitutes to carry out environmental and safety assessments, whichusually last from three to six months.

Commercialisationof GE rice in China would have regional and global impact. It is widelybelieved that India, the second largest producer and consumer of rice,and other rice producing countries (Thailand and Vietnam), may followChina's footsteps if it commercialises GE rice. The GE industry alsohopes that commercialisation of GE rice will open up the gate to otherGE crops in Asia, the most important global market for the GE industry.

The way ahead

During this International Year of Rice the UN has called upondifferent stakeholders in the world to promote the sustainable futureof rice. Here at Greenpeace we are taking this very seriously and havealready organised a cyberaction sending letters to officials at the FAOto remind them that rice needs to be protected from GE at all costs -over 5400 letters have been sent.

"The future of rice should stay in the hands of those for whom riceis life, not a few GE scientists and officials," said Sze. "If we areto promote the sustainable future of rice farming, GE rice is simplynot the answer."

Aswell as the cyberaction the "The Rice is Life Tour" in Yunnan provinceis taking place between 16-24 October, which has the richest diversityof rice in China. For eight days we are travelling the province withjournalists, rice experts and people concerned about GE rice fromDenmark, UK, Hong Kong and mainland China. During the tour we will belooking for the best ways to ensure the sustainable development of riceand safeguarding cultural traditions in the heart of one of the world'shomelands of rice.

Rice farmers need to understand that the short-term productivitygains from new technologies - such as GE - are not sustainable and havewill have a serious economic and cultural impact on their lives.

Despite what the biotech cheerleaders say alleviating poverty andfeeding the world requires more than a technological solution. GE ricedoes not solve these problems. The environmental release of artificiallife forms into the environment will lead to inevitable andirreversible damage, which will in turn undermine food security andsustainable agriculture in the future.

Find out more:

Check out regular updates from the Yunnan Tour in Chinese and in English

Learn more about the threat of GE rice in Asia, tell your friends.

Read: Rice at Risk: Will there be a choice with GE Rice?

Read: Genetically Engineered Rice: Not Sustainable Agriculture