Until Monsanto introduced a genetically altered cotton plant in the buckle on the Chinese cotton belt three years ago, farmers in Shahexin village in China sprayed their fields with tons of organophosphates pesticides to kill bollworms, grubs that feed on immature cotton bolls. According to an article published in The New York Times, which described China’s rush to adopt genetically modified crops; “So toxic is the compound, which is similar to the basic ingredient of nerve gas, that many people die from exposure to it each year, though the government will not disclose the number of fatalities.” just-food.com reports

The report added that the Monsanto cotton plant, known by the brand name of its seed, Bollgard, carries a gene from a common family of bacteria called bacillus thuringiensis, or Bt. This gene makes the plant produce a protein toxic to bollworms, reducing the need for spraying pesticides, raising yields and allowing farmers to survive.

Bioengineering crops are not grown extensively in Western Europe and have raised safety concerns in the United States, “but China has embraced them, growing cotton and other crops faster than any other Asian nation.” Saving China’s farm economy is the country’s chief concern, in the hope that genetics can save farmers from devastation by helping produce lower-cost high-quality products “after it joins the World Trade Organization (WTO).”

Farmland fragmented

The article notes that Chinese farmland is fragmented into tiny plots, each worked by several people, resulting in higher costs to grow a bushel of wheat, rice or corn than the cost in the US or Europe. “After China joins the WTO, a move that will wipe out many import restrictions on foreign agricultural products, the country’s slender farm incomes will shrink even more than they already have from falling grain prices and rising expenses.” It added that China’s rush to genetic crops is part of a broader effort to co-opt the new science as China’s own, before it is dominated by the West, as has occurred with other technologies.

The Chinese government called in top scientists from around the world and set them working on seven broad areas. Genetic engineering was at the top of the list. “Laboratories around the country are aiming their gene guns injecting pollen grains with DNA to produce virus-resistant papayas, potatoes, tobacco and tomatoes.” Among those summoned was Chen Zhanliang, who was working in a Monsanto-financed laboratory at the University of St. Louis. He was put in charge of developing transgenic plants other than cotton, saying that “this is the biggest research grant in the history of Chinese molecular biology.” Mr Chen’s panel gives money to more than 150 laboratories that are working on projects like drought-resistant rice and corn with high oil levels.

China led the GM field in the 80s

The N.Y. Times noted that China was the first country in the world to grow genetically engineered crops commercially, starting with virus-resistant tobacco plants in northeastern Liaoning Province in 1988. Since 1997, Beijing has approved the release of more than 100 genetically altered crops, “double the number released in the United States.” Several, including slow-ripening tomatoes and virus-resistant green peppers, are in commercial production and have entered the food supply.

Despite predictions in the mid 1980s that the growing population would eventually overtake China’s ability to feed itself, the article claims that “self-sufficiency is not much of a concern anymore. The country is sitting on mountains of surplus grain and can no longer buy all that its farmers grow. But because production costs are higher and quality is poor, not much can be profitably exported. Much of it rots in temporary granaries.”

One of China’s biggest gene-transplanting efforts focuses on rice; the world’s most widely consumed grain. Rice, the article notes, is the first crop to be completely genetically decoded, thanks to Monsanto, which sponsored the work and made the results public. China is the number one producer. But its methods are inefficient, and the quality of its rice is often poor.

Farmers’ health at risk?

A farmer in Shahexin was quoted in the article saying that his sons, weaker that he, suffered nausea and troubled breathing at least twice a year. “They need expensive injections of atropine, the antidote that soldiers carried in the Gulf War in case of nerve-gas attack from Iraq.” The Chinese farmer added that his yield has increased as much as 50% since he started planting the modified cotton, “and by not buying pesticides I saved US$80 an acre – and my life.”