Scandal: Greenpeace discovers illegal GE rice in China

Feature Story - 2005-04-13
In a startling development that may have repurcussions on exports of China's biggest crop, Greenpeace has uncovered genetically engineered (GE) rice, unapproved for human consumption, that appears to have been planted and sold illegally in China for the last two years.

Farmer selling GE contaminated rice.

The Chinese government has not authorised GE Rice for commercial planting, and has to date permitted only field testing. Nevertheless, it appears GE Rice is being sold, planted, consumed, and possibly exported in China, one of the largest exporters of Rice. Many of the markets to which China sends its rice demand GE-free grain, and the contamination could negatively impact China's rice sales, particularly in Japan, Korea, Russia, and the European Union.

No country in the world has commercially released GE rice. In the US, despite widespread plantings of GE maize (corn) and soy, no commercial GE rice crops have been planted for fear of consumer and market rejection.

Whistle blowers: local farmers

Local farmers tipped off our investigators that GE rice was being sold without government approval several months ago, when Greenpeace conducted its 'Rice is Life' tour there.

Subsequent investigations by our team found samples of rice seed and unmilled and milled rice containing GE strains. We collected evidence from seed companies, agriculture extension stations, farmers, rice millers, wholesalers and retailers. We tested our results with the international laboratory GeneScan, which confirmed the presence of transgenic DNA in 19 samples.

Eighteen of the samples tested positive as Bt rice - a form which has been genetically engineered to produce an inbuilt pesticide. For years, large-scale field trials with Bt rice have been conducted by scientists of the Huazhong Agriculture University in Wuhan, the provincial capital of Hubei.

The area borders dangerously close to what's called the "centre for biodiversity" of rice -- the place where the natural evolution of wild and cultivated rice is at its most active, producing the greatest number of varieties and variations from generation to generation. Any contamination of the wild rice species there could alter natural rice evolution irrevocably and with impacts that may not be understood for generations to come.

Why is this dangerous?

GE insect resistant Bt rice has not been approved for cultivation anywhere in the world. There is no publicly available environmental assessment nor human food safety assessment available for any GE Bt rice. However, studies from other GE Bt crops such as maize and cotton give strong indications that Bt rice will have serious environmental consequences and there are serious human food safety concerns.

Food safety risks:

  • Rice is the most important staple food crop in the world.
  • On average, rice provides 30% of calorie and 19% of protein intake in China.
  • One of the toxins produced in Bt rice (and which was found in two of the samples) could cause allergenic reactions in humans. It has already been demonstrated to do so in mice.
  • The human food safety of Bt GE rice is unknown.

Environmental risks:

  • Non-target species such as butterflies and moths may be adversely affected;
  • Weeds could pick up the pesticide production capabilities via crossbreeding ;
  • Insects resistant to the introduced toxin may evolve and require more intensive chemical control;
  • Contamination of natural genetic resources;
  • Bt rice could also affect long-term soil health.

Rice is life

The illegal GE rice scandal comes at a time when the Chinese government is evaluating the environmental and health safety of various GE rice lines for potential commercial approval. The illegal release of GE rice into the food chain prior to approval underscores the weakness of the regulatory system.

Those weaknesses are not limited to China. In March multinational GE conglomerate Syngenta admitted that they mistakenly sold hundreds of tonnes of illegal unapproved GE maize in the United States over the past four years. Regulators hadn't noticed. Another GE contamination case in the USA in 2001 resulted in a $1 billion product recall amid concerns of potential allergenic reactions after illegal, GE corn (Starlink) entered the human food chain. And in Mexico in 2002, a centre of biodiversity for maize, testing of 22 varieties revealed genetic contamination in 15 of them, despite a government ban on GE planting.

Greenpeace should not have to be monitoring the GE industry's compliance with regulations, and the GE industry is clearly incapable of regulating itself.

GE rice is dangerous to the environment, our world's food supply, and China's market position as a rice exporter.