China’s GMO Rice Gets Approval Abroad, But Not at Home
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2018-01-22 14:09:54

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has declared a genetically modified strain of rice to be commercially viable, but the Chinese researchers who developed it say large-scale production is not yet possible due to a lack of policy at home.

In a Jan. 11 email to Huazhong Agricultural University in Wuhan, capital of central Hubei province, the FDA said that Huahui No. 1, a strain of rice genetically engineered by scientists at the university to resist pests, “does not raise issues that would require premarket review of approval by the FDA,” according to a Monday report by state media outlet Science and Technology Daily. The FDA’s announcement was also published on its official website.

To the researchers, this a huge step — but only in theory. “It means that we could now sell this strain of rice on the U.S. market,” Lin Yongjun, a member of the Huazhong Agricultural University research team, told Sixth Tone. But Lin explained that for now at least, the plants cannot be sold to the U.S. because production is impossible in China.

As the world’s largest producer and consumer of rice, China encourages experimentation and innovation when it comes to developing hybrid varieties but blocks commercialization of genetically modified strains. According to Lin, the point of applying for recognition from the FDA is to encourage regulators in China to reconsider policy.

At present, Lin said, large-scale production of such strains is not allowed without the Ministry of Agriculture’s express approval — which it has never given. “There is no way for genetically engineered crops to pass cultivation trials,” he said, explaining that this is a necessary step to receiving a production certificate, according to regulations that went into effect in 2001. In comparison, the U.S. does not have such a process for approving the production of genetically altered crops.

Lin and his colleagues developed Huaihui No. 1 in the late 1990s. In 2009, the agriculture ministry granted the strain a “biological safety” certificate, which it renewed in 2015. But without passing trials, large-scale cultivation remains out of reach.

The perceived safety of genetically modified food has long been a heated issue in China, where public opinion remains bitterly divided. Yuan Longping, the country’s revered “father of hybrid rice,” said during a 2016 interview that researchers should be wary of endorsing crops altered to resist pests, as they could also pose a danger to humans. In a safety report submitted to the government, however, the Huahai No. 1 research team assured the authorities that while its strain is a deterrent to insects, it has no adverse effect on birds or mammals.

In 2014, the government of Wuhan, capital of central Hubei province, destroyed 10 hectares of genetically modified rice fields following orders from the central government to conduct an inspection. Some of these specimens were said to have come from a “leaked” sub-strain of Huaihui No. 1, according to an official publication of the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

China’s cautious approach to genetic food technology is mirrored by other Asian countries, with Japan being one notable exception: The country planted its first paddy of genetically modified rice in May of last year.

As for commercial viability of Huaihui No. 1 in foreign markets, the U.S. still wouldn’t be an ideal choice, Lin said, as the soil and climate are unsuitable. Yet he and his colleagues thought FDA recognition was a goal worth pursuing anyway.

“Our hope is that this recognition from abroad can help pave way the way for more open policies in China,” he said.

Editor: David Paulk.

(Header image: An experimental rice paddy in Zunyi, Guizhou province, Oct. 10, 2017. Luo Xing/VCG)