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China GE Crop Ban Alarms Biotech Industry

New York Times

October 22, 2002
The Science and Politics of Super Rice
By JOSEPH KAHN


HANGZHOU, China - Huang Danian, an expert at the National Rice Research
Institute here, has created a rice so resilient and tasty, he says, that
"every farmer in China will certainly want it."

So far, however, it grows only on a few acres in Mr. Huang's walled
garden near Hangzhou, about 100 miles southwest of Shanghai. Though he
has passed government safety tests and has a national patent for his
creation, China has banned his rice from grocery shelves because it
depends on altering rice genes to create a breed immune to the toxic
effects of herbicides.

Reversing its formerly enthusiastic embrace of genetic experiments,
China has imposed restrictions on domestic varieties of genetically
modified crops like rice, soybeans, vegetables and tobacco, and required
lengthy safety tests and cumbersome labeling rules for imports of such
food.

The go-slow approach reflects rising concerns about food safety, but
mainly, many critics say, the restrictions are a convenient tool for
trade protection.

Officials in Beijing fear that small-scale, and therefore relatively
inefficient, Chinese farmers cannot compete with food imports from the
United States, many of them genetically modified. Officials also think
that the country's own food exports may suffer in the world market,
where fears of so-called Frankenstein food are rampant, if China becomes
a pioneer in genetically altered foods.

China's entry into the World Trade Organization earlier this year was
supposed to open its markets permanently and make it difficult to
manipulate trade in such ways. But new rules and regulations governing
farm products and some crucial services like banking and
telecommunications, show that it has no intention of making domestic
producers fend for themselves overnight.

"The U.S. hoped China was just going to get out of the market, but it
obviously isn't happening that way," said Robert Paarlberg, a political
science expert at Wellesley College who has studied China's policies on
genetics. "In some ways, the genetics issue is just an excuse to control
trade."

The newly cautious approach to genetically modified foods has
disappointed American farmers, who expected to sell far more goods to
China after it joined the trade organization early this year. Instead,
their sales of soybeans, the largest export crop, fell 23 percent in the
year through September compared with the similar period of 2001, largely
because of complications related to China's new testing and licensing
procedures.

Bush administration trade officials have made repeated trips to China in
recent months aimed at persuading officials to allow unfettered imports
of soybeans. Trade in farm products is also expected to be a sensitive
economic issue on the agenda when President Jiang Zemin meets President
Bush in Crawford, Tex., on Oct. 25.

Possibly to ease trade tensions, China recently announced that it would
extend a provisional arrangement allowing imports of soybeans until next
September, giving it more time to review health and environmental
effects.

This concession relieves some of the uncertainty that had disrupted the
$1 billion soybean trade. But it may also push back the date when China
decides whether to certify American soybeans as safe.

More broadly, the guarded approach to genetically modified foods appears
to be ascendant. Officials in the agriculture ministry want more
restrictions on genetically altered foods because of safety and
competitiveness concerns, several Chinese officials said. They have
outmaneuvered people in the nation's science establishment who wanted to
see the fruits of genetic research harvested quickly.

"China has long wanted to be No. 1 in developing rice and other staple
foods," said Mr. Huang, who had been negotiating with Monsanto and other
big foreign biotechnology companies to commercialize his rice breed.
"But it is becoming clear that we will not develop faster than the rest
of world. We are not going to be first."

That would amount to a decisive shift for China, which until recently
seemed to want to become the developing world's leader in biotechnology.
It has invested large amounts - as much as $100 million annually,
according to a survey team from the University of California - to
develop more than 140 varieties of genetically modified plants.

The idea is to rearrange genes in important crops to maximize their
resistance to pests or to pesticides and herbicides. Other strains have
been designed to grow in arid or salty soil, while still others were
tweaked to improve taste.

China saw genetic research as the way to maintain basic self-sufficiency
in staple foods and get the most from its arable land, which is already
scarce and is shrinking every year.

So strong was its commitment to genetic engineering that it was the only
developing country to join the Human Genome Project. Its scientists
played a leading role in deciphering the complex rice genome. And China
produced genetically modified seeds to grow potatoes, tomatoes,
soybeans, rice and even trees and flowers.

But some early failed experiments with genetically modified tobacco
plants in the 1990's, as well as reports that genetically modified corn
had unintentionally been mixed with organic corn in Mexico in 1999,
began to diminish its ardor, local and international experts said.

Growing consumer resistance to genetically modified food in Japan and
South Korea, as well as in Europe, provided another warning. Chinese
officials feared that they would lose important export markets by
pushing ahead too quickly.

Polls also showed that domestic shoppers preferred food that had not
been genetically altered. After Chinese officials issued new labeling
rules this summer, supermarkets were supposed to begin putting notices
on products that contained genetically modified ingredients. Few
products carry such labels now, but there are many, like Rong's brand
corn oil, that have bright yellow labels saying they contain only
organic ingredients.

Both the Bush and Clinton administrations had hoped that China would
become an ally on farm issues in the World Trade Organization, where the
fight over the safety of genetically modified food may eventually end
up. Instead, China now appears more inclined to support a cautionary
stance like the one taken by the European Union. If its position does
not change, it may slow the trade of genetically modified food globally.

"In the long run, China could still be an ally of the U.S. within the
W.T.O.," Mr. Paarlberg said, "but in the short run they are definitely
not going to be a stalking horse."

Indeed, the trend is toward more restrictions. Although China has had
new seed varieties available for years, it has allowed the widespread
planting of only one crop, a strain of cotton modified to resist the
bollworm.

This spring, Beijing banned biotechnology companies like Monsanto and
Syngenta from investing in the development of genetically modified
strains of corn, soybeans and rice seeds.

More recently, it canceled plans to allow the broad use of corn plants
modified to fight bugs in the main grain-producing provinces in the
northeast. Field tests showed that in China's tightly concentrated farm
plots, pests evolved quickly to overcome the resistance of genetically
modified plants.

"The general sense is that the risks are too high and the market is too
small" for most genetically modified plants, said Wu Kongmin, who heads
a panel of experts conducting safety tests for the agriculture ministry.

At his laboratory near Hangzhou, Mr. Huang is waiting for approval to
develop rice seeds based on his herbicide-resistant breed. But he puts
most of his energy into developing a new grade of rice that has an extra
long grain, which he plans to market under the brand name Tianmei. He
achieved that result, significantly, through conventional crossbreeding,
not by rearranging genes.

"At least," he said, "we can make some progress the old way."

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