Magazine / January 2012

Web of deceit

A young girl in Yunnan helps on her family farm.

A young girl in Yunnan helps on her family farm.

The origins of rice cultivation can be traced to the valleys of China's Yangtze River, with some estimates putting it at over 7,000 years ago. In that time, rice has become an integral part of Chinese life and culture.

Learn About Eco-friendly rice farming methods

Rice dictates the lives of millions of farmers in the Chinese countryside, feeds over a billion Chinese citizens each year and is synonymous with Chinese cuisine and culture. And Yunnan, in southwestern China is where much of this rice originates from. There was no doubt about it - this was a critical fight.

So when the team got back from the duck-rice fields, they got stuck into the campaign. First they unraveled the complex web of players involved in the push to commercialize. It was a dirty mess full of conflict of interests.

"For a scientist to have a high level of credibility they need to be separated from approval bodies and industry. But in China, GE scientists are such a close knit gang that the people sitting on approval boards for research money, biosafety boards that approve product safety, the scientists at public research institutes, and those at biotech companies who plan to produce and profit from GE rice are either one and the same, or closely connected," explains Kontau.

For a scientist to have a high level of credibility they need to be separated from approval bodies and industry. But in China, GE scientists are such a close knit gang. 

Let's take an example. One prominent GE scientist, who had applied to commercialize GE rice was at the Chinese Academy of Agriculture Sciences, a member of the biosafety approval board under the Ministry of Agriculture and on the board of a company which sold GE cotton seeds to Chinese farmers.

Tipping point for the campaign

Greenpeace leaked to the press their findings. The web of deceit was splashed on the page of the Southern Weekend, a Guangdong-based newspaper.

"After that story came out the GE rice scientists and experts were inundated with so many calls they appear to have shut their phones down for three months," says Kontau.

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."

The next break came with a Newsweek story.

The team had heard rumours that GE rice was already being illegally farmed but they had no proof. This Newsweek story quoted China's most prominent GE rice scientist and Vice-Chairperson of the China Association for Science and Technology, Zhang Qifa as saying 247 acres of GM rice had been cultivated in Hubei province. Alarm bells rang. At that time, only 6.5 acres of GE rice could legally be farmed in a field trial before it is approved for commercialization. 

Girl in a paddy field

Undercover in Hubei

Kontau sent a team undercover to Wuhan, Hubei's provincial capital, equipped with rapid GE tests in their bags. The activists  looked for new strains of pest-resistant rice. They bought a few bags, tested them back in their hotel rooms and found that they had indeed bought GE rice seeds. Farmers in the region were already unwittingly buying and growing these seeds. GE rice was already being sold in China. Totally illegally.

The team knew they had to get the media on the case quickly but the problem was in tracing the contamination of the food chain by illegal GE rice. 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 day the media broke with that story, in the restaurant near our Guangzhou office we went to lunch and overheard the table next to us saying: 'Have you heard about dodgy rice being sold, God!' That ought to be your bench mark of success - when everyday citizens are talking about the issue over lunch," says Kontau proudly.

Baby eating rice products.We continued testing, and GE rice turned up in rice noodles, baby rice powder and even rice products that were being exported to Japan and Europe. The campaign kept local government bodies on their toes, punishing seed companies, destroying GE rice seeds and GE rice in the field.

But punishment continued to evade those at the source of the problem - the scientists and research institutes who were allowing the contamination to happen in the first place.