Greenpeace yesterday applauded the decision of the Chinese government to tighten control over genetically modified organisms (GMOs) by limiting their release to the environment and launching a comprehensive labelling system on GMO seeds and food products.

The new "Biosafety regulation on GMOs in Agriculture", announced today by the Chinese government, is the legislative framework safeguarding biodiversity, the environment and human health against the potential adverse effects of GMOs.

It covers the GMO applications in the areas of research, field trials, production, food processing, management, as well as import and export. According to the new regulation, GMOs will be classified into four categories according to the seriousness of their potential impact on the environment and on living organisms. Their releases to the environment need to be approved by relevant authorities.

The regulation outlines the mandatory labelling of all GMOs, including seeds, animal feed and food products containing GMOs. Unless GMOs are labelled, their sale will be illegal.

"This is definitely a positive move of the Chinese government, being one of the world's largest agricultural producers and food consumers, in taking a precautionary approach towards genetic engineering," said Lo Sze Ping, Campaigner of Greenpeace China.

"Due to the popular rejection of genetically engineered (GE) food in Europe, transnational GE companies are trying to dump their products into Asia. The recent decision of the Thai government in banning environmental releases of GMOs and the Chinese government's new regulation is clear signs that Asia is refusing to be the dumping ground for an unwanted technology," Lo added.

Despite the rapid development of genetic engineering in China, the Chinese authorities have been very cautious about applying GE technology in food production. So far, only pest-resistant Bt- cotton, which accounts for one million ha in 2000 (1/3 of the total cotton crop area), has been commercially released and is mainly for industrial uses. Delay-ripening tomato and virus-resistant sweet pepper have been allowed for commercial growing, but the permit for their seed reproduction is yet to be granted due to biosafety concerns. Therefore, in reality, no GE food crops have been commercially grown.

When asked by Greenpeace, Professor Xue Dayuan, researcher at the Nanjing Institute of Environmental Sciences of the State Environmental Protection Administration, commented that "this new regulation shows that Chinese government is taking the precautionary principle on genetic engineering. The threats of GMOs to biodiversity and the environment are real and irreversible. Their impact on agriculture could be destructive. Our country has to take measures to prevent such adverse effects."

Professor Xue is the leader of the expert group drafting the "China National Biosafety Framework" the policy blueprint for biosafety legislation.