Magazine / January 2012

How Greenpeace got China to say No to GE Rice

A mother and child in Yunnan.

A mother and child in Yunnan.

The fight to keep GE rice out of China is one that can be traced back to the beginnings of Greenpeace in Mainland China itself. And it's a story that encapsulates much of what Greenpeace stands for: Even with the most formidable of opponents, from both government and industry, positive change can be achieved.

Photo Gallery The 'Rice is Life' tour

First let's introduce the bald guy. He's 38-year-old Sze Pang Cheung, also known as Kontau (which means bald in Cantonese). He's now the Campaign Director of Greenpeace East Asia.

Sze Pang Cheung in front of the Nestle HQBack in 2004, the GE rice campaign was one of the first campaigns for the new Greenpeace team in Mainland China. Fujian-born Kontau had just joined the organization, having learnt the ropes as a student activist in Hong Kong. His face breaks into a smile when he remembers those early Greenpeace days.

"We launched the campaign with a five-day bus tour of Guangzhou," he says. "Actually it was more like a van than a bus, and it wasn't even ours. We were borrowing it from another environmental NGO in China called 'Friends of Nature'."

It was chocolate that gave us our first media win. In Guangzhou, 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.

One of those funky things

Farmer holding a duckThe 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. It 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.

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.

"It was one of those funky things we did in those early years," says Kontau.

The tour was such a success that the cameras were lent out for an extended period of a year and a beautiful book was made to record the images.

But just as they were about to head south, the team got some bad news. Chinese scientists had applied to commercialize four varieties of Chinese GE rice.

"I was totally shocked," says Kontau. While the scientists' move didn't mean that GE rice would be commercialized any time soon – there were lots of steps to pass first – it was a major step towards commercialization.

What's wrong with genetic engineering? Genetic engineering (GE) enables scientists to create plants, animals and micro-organisms by manipulating genes in a way that does not occur naturally. These genetically modified organisms (GMOs) can spread through nature and interbreed with natural organisms, thereby contaminating natural organisms in an unforeseeable and uncontrollable way.

Their release is 'genetic pollution' and is a major threat because GE foods cannot be recalled once released into the environment. And there have been over 140 documented cases of GE crop contamination in the past 10 years. Once they are released into the environment, they are out of control. If anything goes wrong, if crops fail, human health risks are identified or the environment is harmed, they are impossible to recall.