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China may lift ban on modified rice
BEIJING -- China could soon become the first developing country in the world to allow the sale of genetically modified rice, experts here say, as leaders desperately search for ways to mollify the country's increasingly restless peasant farmers and shore up China's shrinking agricultural system. As the world's largest rice market, whatever decision China makes about genetically modified rice could have implications around the globe.

The country first allowed the sale of genetically modified cotton, corn, tomatoes, and soy in the 1990s. But Beijing suspended the commercialization of any new varieties of genetically modified organisms in 2000, when global concerns crested about the potential long-terms effects of tinkering with the genetic makeup of food staples.

Now, experts such as Huang Ji Kun of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing say the Chinese government is close to lifting this ban.

The Chinese government has invested $500 million to research genetically modified foods, more than any other government except the United States. Four companies that make genetically modified seeds -- three local ones and one connected with St. Louis-based Monsanto Co. -- have filed applications with the Chinese government to permit the sale of their versions of genetically modified rice.

Local proponents of the genetic modification, including China's Ministry of Science and Technology, Monsanto, and local manufacturers of genetically modified products, as well as several leading agronomists, economists, and scientists, say it's the most efficient and ecological way for China to feed its 1.3 billion people and raise rural incomes.

Huang said his research shows that genetically modified crops reduce pesticide use by about 80 percent.

``That saves farmers lots of money, and it's also good for the environment," he said.

But opponents, including some officials in China's Ministry of Agriculture, environmentalists, citizens groups, and some dissenting scientists are concerned that not enough research has gone into how these crops -- modified to make them more pest-resistant or easier to grow -- can impact public health, reduce biodiversity and harm the environment.

``Who wants to eat a crop that kills pests who try to eat it?" said Li Ming Fu, a farmer from Xi Shuang Ban Na village in southern Yunnan province who teaches local youths how to farm. ``It's not natural. . . . No one I know likes the idea."

Genetically modified seeds are developed by fusing natural seeds with genes from micro-organisms, other plants, and even animals. Sometimes the alien gene is inserted to help the plant produce toxins that attack any insects trying to eat it. For example, a bacteria called Bacillus thuringiensis is often added to corn and cotton seeds because its toxins make pests lethargic and sleepy. This reduces the damage pests can do and allows farmers to use less pesticides
MGR Archive 4.7.2006
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