In spite of prevailing official caution, the prospect of reversing a steady decline in total rice production and reducing the use of pesticides which poison hundreds of farmers each year are likely to prove compelling factors as China weighs up the pros and cons of genetically modified rice. Tamara Vantroyen reports.

China looks to be a likely candidate for the first country in the world to approve genetically modified rice, despite the fact that the State Agricultural GM Crop Biosafety Committee, a technical body that evaluates GM research, did not approve the idea at its three-day meeting in Beijing late last year. Caution seems to be the order of the day, largely because opposition to GM rice crops is much stronger than for cotton and feed crops like corn.
 
But in China, non-approved GM rice has already made an appearance. Greenpeace uncovered the cultivation of GM rice in Hubei province in early- 2005. At the time local farmers knew little about the risks of planting the genetically modified crop, which is why a more cautious approach is being taken to the biotechnology's official approval.
 
But assuming that financial considerations eventually overcome environmental scruples, what effect would GM rice have on the rice industry in China? Given that the Chinese central government is setting aside US$1bn to hasten the commercial release of GM rice, the effect is likely to be significant to say the least. One of the main attractions of modified rice is that it gives higher yields and would therefore help the problem of food shortages China might face if its rice production continues to dwindle. Rice prices are up 27% in China this year because of reduced production. Rice output has fallen from 198.5m tons in 1999 to 179m tons in 2004, according to agriculture ministry statistics.

Pollution, irrigation with industrial and domestic sewage, long term use of chemical compounds and the improper disposal of animal waste from farmland have all contributed to China's dwindling rice production. Pollution in particular gives serious cause for concern. China's farming areas are suffering from water, soil and atmospheric emissions, which has been termed "agricultural tri-dimension pollution". Of the total land that has been polluted in China, farmland accounts for about one sixth.
 
As a result, one potentially beneficial effect GM rice would have on the rice industry in China is that it would help reduce the use of pesticides which are themselves creating more pollution. Those who stand to benefit the most from a higher rice yield and a reduction in pesticide usage are the Chinese farmers themselves. Pesticides in China are cheap but poison around 50,000 farmers a year, around 500 of them fatally, according to a study led by Dr Jikun Huang and published in the US journal Science.

There is also the matter of cost. Agrifood Awareness Australia conducted a case study with Xia Guoyuan, a 40-year-old farmer, when he was selected in 2004 to plant pest-resistant GM rice in a scientific trial. According to Xia, he was able to save almost US$10 on pesticides, which account for about 30% of his total costs, for each mu or 0.065 hectares of rice.
 
According to Gurdev Singh Khush, a consultant at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), insect-resistant rice followed by disease-resistant rice are the two types of GM rice likely to be the first to make their appearance on the market in China. Insect-resistant or Bt rice is resistant to the corn borer pest, which is a leading destroyer of corn crops in China. Bacterial leaf blight is one of the most devastating rice diseases in China and disease-resistant rice would be immune to it.
 
Until the production of GM rice is formally approved, the Ministry of Agriculture has asked 12 grain-producing provinces, of which the five largest are Guangdong, Fujian, Hunan, Hubei and Sichuan, to raise output by sowing a combined 4m hectares of super rice - a strain of rice developed by researcher Yuan Longping who has been honoured with the title "China's Father of Super Rice" - this year. According to the Ministry of Agriculture, super strains can produce up to 13.5 tons per hectare compared with an average 6.5 tons per hectare for conventional seeds. That this is being taken seriously is illustrated by the fact that 20 leading super rice strains will be cultivated over a period of six years from 2005 onwards, and will be sown over 8.52m hectares, representing some 30% of China's total paddy fields.