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Pressure on Prices as China Readies First GMO Rice
As the leading exporter of rice, Thailand is bracing for a slump in global prices once China gives the go ahead to commercialise the world's first genetically modified rice. World rice prices are hovering at multi-year highs, or 30-40 percent over last year's levels, thanks to a drought in the growing nations in Asia.

But Vichai Sriprasert, president of the Thai Rice Exporters' Association, said that China will sharply reduce its imports and could even become a exporter with the introduction of GMO rice, which can double yields. China is already the biggest producer and consumer of rice on the planet.

"We are going to see another major breakthrough after many decades. Potentially, we are talking about yields doubling. That will obviously be price depressing," Vichai told Reuters in a telephone interview.

China's average rice yields for non-GMO rice are about 2.5 tonnes per acre, which is among the highest in the world. Yields in Thailand are only about 1 tonne per acre.

Scientists believe China could give the green light as early as this year for a transgenic variety, called Xa21, which contains a gene from an African wild rice. But government officials remain tight-lipped on the timing.

The Xa21 strain, developed through publicly funded international research, is resistant to bacterial blight -- a leading crop disease in Africa and Asia, which can devastate yields as it spreads in water droplets.

The Philippines and India are also holding field trials for GMO rice, and are closely watching for consumer reaction before taking the plunge themselves.

"People who are thinking of launching GMO rice have to be somewhat cautious. It can take quite some time for consumers to start feeling comfortable with it," Vichai said.

SCYTHES SHARPENED

When GMO production in China begins it will be the world's first large-scale plantation of a major transgenic crop for human consumption. Last year, Monsanto Co. halted plans to introduce the world's first GMO wheat in Canada and the United States after widespread protests.

But the ride for GMO rice is unlikely to be any smoother, with non-governmental organisations already sharpening their scythes for the grain which they say threatens health and the environment.

Last month, Greenpeace advertised in leading Asian newspapers for an agriculture expert having "demonstrable track record of opposition to genetically engineered rice".

But Vichai said GMO rice would take China a step closer to its goal of becoming self-sufficient in grains.

"There will be some opposition to GMO rice but I don't think people have a choice," Vichai said. "Those who cannot catch up with the technology will suffer. The opposition might not be there if China sells all its GMO rice domestically. But if it starts to export, it could be a different story."

China, until recently a major rice exporter, imported 761,000 tonnes rice last year after poor weather cut its harvest in 2003 to around 160 million tonnes, the lowest in many years. Output in 2004 recovered to around 185 million tonnes but the country is still expected to import some cargoes in 2005.

Asia is a net food grain importer and analysts have said poverty in many Asian nations would win over consumers to GMO rice, which will likely sell at a cheaper price.

Vichai said plans by the Philippines to launch a GMO rice would depend on how international prices move after China commercialises the transgenic variety.

"If prices fall sharply, the Philippines would be looking to import," he said. "Importing could be cheaper than growing, which involves a long process."

He added that Thailand has no plans on GMO rice, but added that the country might have to look at growing it on a limited scale in the future.

"There are many other things which we can do to improve yields, which are very low in Thailand. If we develop the central plains, our production levels can rise significantly," he added.
MGR Archive 9.6.2005
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