A raging public controversy over genetically engineered (GE) rice in China captured media attention in recent months, and has culminated in a surprising win. A few weeks ago, the country’s State Council released a new Draft Food Law1 that, if passed, would protect the genetic resources of China’s food crops and restrict the application of GE technology in its main food crops.
This is significant progress in the effort by farmers and campaigners in China and indeed across Asia to protect the genetic integrity, diversity and heritage of their rice.
The Pesticide Eco-Alternatives Centre (PEAC), a PAN partner based in Kunming, welcomed the draft law, and lauded the democratic process symbolized by China opening a public comment period through the end of March. But PEAC would like to see the law go further. In a statement to China’s State Council, PEAC argued that the law should protect biodiversity — not just germplasm — in food crops; disallow transgenic technology in all — not just “main” — food crops; and better reflect farmers and rural communities' priorities and concerns.
This [draft] law is very welcome since it is the first law in relation to food security and sovereignty for more than 1,300 millions of Chinese. — Sun Jing, Pesticide Eco-Alternatives Centre, Kunming, China
PEAC's Deputy Director Sun Jing expressed her hope that the proposed Draft Food Law would ultimately prevent rice from being genetically engineered. “Rice is life, it represents the livelihood of millions of farmers, feeds billions of people, and it is the basis of our food security,” she said. PEAC has been working for years with rural communities to advance ecological agriculture free of synthetic chemicals and GMOs.
Meanwhile, Greenpeace has produced a fascinating narrative on its website of its own seven-year campaign in China to block GE rice. The dramatic story is filled with exposés of corporate scientists influencing policy, government suppression of information, revelations of illegal GE contamination of rice noodles and baby food, consumer outrage, celebrity support (Mao Zedong’s daughter), a “media frenzy” and finally, in September 2011 a victory: the Ministry of Agriculture’s decision to suspend the commercialization of GE rice for the next 5-10 years. Greenpeace China has embraced the new Draft Food Law as a “world-first initiative.”
Read the fine print
One red flag, however — and it’s a big one — is the draft law’s caveat that restrictions would only apply to “unauthorized” GE crops. As PEAC staff have told me, this implies that authorized GE crops can appear without restriction in food products.
China already allows several GE food crops to be grown (peppers, tomatoes, papayas and cotton — think cottonseed oil). It has also authorized imports of GE soybeans and corn and, back in 2008, secretly approved two strains of GE rice, paving the way for commercialization (since blocked). Meanwhile, news reports indicate that China is anxious to fast-track its development of new GE corn varieties over the next several years.
Still, any backing away from the promotion of GE rice in China is good news. What’s more, anti-GE momentum in China seems to be building. The public outcry spurred two major Chinese food corporations as well as several supermarkets to take a pledge not to include GE ingredients in their own brands and with their fresh unpackaged fruits, vegetables and grains, according to Greenpeace.
If the heightened public awareness and resistance to GE rice in China can be extended to a broad public debate over the country’s other myriad GE crops, that would be something indeed.
Lives on the line
The Chinese decision to halt GE rice is important because so much is at stake. Indeed, farmers’ lives and livelihoods are on the line. A few days ago, an Indian news outlet reported that suicides among GE farmers have surged in Khandesh and Marathwada, India. Suicide rates there have now surpassed even those in Vidarbha, the infamous Bt cotton-growing region of Maharashta, where crushing levels of indebtedness — directly linked to the adoption of GE crops — drive thousands of farmers to take their lives every year.
The tragic true story of the failure of GE technology in India has been told in an incredibly moving and powerful new documentary by Micha Peled, Bitter Seeds. The film will be shown at the San Francisco International Film Festival this Spring.
Don’t miss it; the footage I’ve seen so far (having collaborated over the years in background research for the film) is sobering, yet inspiring. It will give you an even deeper appreciation of the stakes in this global struggle for justice.
1Law described on Chinese government webpage; no English language translation as yet available.