Scandal: Greenpeace discovers illegal GE rice in China

Feature story - April 13, 2005
In a startling development that may have repercussions 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 forcommercial planting, and has to date permitted only field testing.Nevertheless, it appears GE Rice is being sold, planted, consumed, andpossibly exported in China, one of the largest exporters of Rice. Manyof the markets to which China sends its rice demand GE-free grain, andthe contamination could negatively impact China's rice sales,particularly in Japan, Korea, Russia, and the European Union.

Nocountry in the world has commercially released GE rice. In the US,despite widespread plantings of GE maize (corn) and soy, no commercialGE rice crops have been planted for fear of consumer and marketrejection.

Whistle blowers: local farmers

Localfarmers tipped off our investigators that GE rice was being soldwithout government approval several months ago, when Greenpeaceconducted its Rice for Life tour there.

Subsequentinvestigations by our team found samples of rice seed and unmilled andmilled rice containing GE strains. We collected evidence from seedcompanies, agriculture extension stations, farmers, rice millers,wholesalers and retailers. We tested our results with the internationallaboratory GeneScan, which confirmed the presence of transgenic DNA in19 samples.

Two of the samples tested positive as Bt rice - aform which has been genetically engineered to produce an inbuiltpesticide. For years, large-scale field trials with Bt rice have beenconducted by scientists of the Huazhong Agriculture University inWuhan, the provincial capital of Hubei.

Thearea borders dangerously close to what's called the "centre forbiodiversity" of rice -- the place where the natural evolution of wildand cultivated rice is at its most active, producing the greatestnumber of varieties and variations from generation to generation. Anycontamination of the wild rice species there could alter natural riceevolution irrevocably and with impacts that may not be understood forgenerations to come.

Why is this dangerous?

GEinsect resistant Bt rice has not been approved for cultivation anywherein the world. There is no publicly available environmental assessmentnor human food safety assessment available for any GE Bt rice. However,studies from other GE Bt crops such as maize and cotton give strongindications that Bt rice will have serious environmental consequencesand 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 intwo of the samples) could cause allergenic reactions in humans. It hasalready 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

Theillegal GE rice scandal comes at a time when the Chinese government isevaluating the environmental and health safety of various GE rice linesfor potential commercial approval. The illegal release of GE rice intothe food chain prior to approval underscores the weakness of theregulatory system.

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

Greenpeace should not have to bemonitoring the GE industry's compliance with regulations, and the GEindustry is clearly incapable of regulating itself.  The Chinesegovernment shouldn't have to worry that GE approved for testing isgetting out into the environment by accident, or that scientists whoare told not to release unapproved GE strains will do what they aretold.  But the only way to ensure this is to simply keep GE out ofthe country.

We are calling for an urgent, international product recall of all the GE Rice in China.

"TheGE industry is out of control," says our campaigner Sze PangCheung.  "A small group of rogue scientists have taken the world'smost important staple food crop into their own hands and are subjectingthe Chinese public to a totally unacceptable experiment."

"We'recalling on the Chinese Government to take urgent action to recall theunapproved GE rice from the fields and from the food chain, and toconduct an immediate inquiry into the source of the contamination."

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