Magazine / January 2012

Timeline: GE Rice Fight

Campaign kicks off

Back in 2003, the GE rice campaign was one of the first campaigns for the new Greenpeace team in Mainland China. Led by campaigner Sze Pang Cheung (aka Kontau), the team released test results that showed Swiss-owned Nestle manufactured chocolate powder contained GE ingredients. Shanghai mother Eileen Zhu sued the company because she was angry that she had unknowingly been feeding her child a GE product. The media pounced and the GE public debate had begun.

Farmers' view

In October 2004 Kontau and his team headed to Yunnan where many of the locals employ traditional sustainable farming methods. They handed out cameras so that the locals could record their rice lives including "duck-rice" farming where ducks paddle about the flooded rice paddies, eating up pests and fertilizing fields with their manure. Duck-rice farming has been around for 2,000 years. Around this time the team also received some bad news. Chinese scientists had applied to commercialize four varieties of Chinese GE rice. 

Web of deceit

Late 2004 the team began to unravel the complex web of players involved in the push to commercialize. It was a dirty mess full of conflict of interests. Greenpeace leaked to the press their findings. The web of deceit was splashed on the page of the Southern Weekend, a Guangdong-based newspaper. It was an emotional moment for the campaign. "That story is still hanging on the wall of our Beijing office. It was a tipping point without which we couldn't have won the war," says Kontau.

Undercover work

In 2005 Kontau sent a team undercover to Wuhan, Hubei's provincial capital, equipped with rapid GE tests in their bags. And with a handful of leads and a whole lot of luck the team found illegal GE rice in Guangzhou and the media frenzy began. The campaign kept local government bodies on their toes, punishing seed companies, destroying GE rice seeds and GE rice in the field. 

Calm before the storm

There was a respite in 2006 after the Chinese government imposed a two-year moratorium on the commercialization process. But it proved to be the calm before a storm. Just after the two years were up, the State Council approved a RMB20 billion fund for GE research and development, with rice at the top of the list. By the end of 2009 it looked all but inevitable that China's rice would go GE. Long after the fact, the government announced that a secret multi-ministerial meeting had passed two GE rice lines – even though they had not received biosafety certificates at the time. 

Top officials say No to GE

As the campaign team stepped up its anti-GE message in early 2010, help came from the most unlikely of sources: Chinese state magazine 'Outlook Weekly' when it published a special GE-rice debate issue. Shortly afterwards, Chinese politicians began raising GE doubts, followed by a string of Chinese celebrities including Mao Zedong's daughter and the father of China's hybrid rice, Yuan Longping. Several Chinese scholars signed a petition urging caution on GE rice and submitted it to the annual parliament meeting.

The final leg

The time was ripe for Greenpeace to begin a large-scale anti-GE rice campaign. The team exposed Walmart for selling GE rice and filed a legal case against it. The team beamed a GE shopper's guide to half a million Chinese consumers through mobile and Internet services. Chinese consumers joined the campaign, ringing up companies and demanding they go non-GE. In September 2011, came the big news we had all been waiting for. China's major financial weekly, the 'Economic Observer' quoted an information source close to the Ministry of Agriculture saying that China had suspended the commercialization of GE rice. And then in February 2012, China drafted a legal proposal to completely shut down GE rice.