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Let’s talk about biotech

Scientists need to better engage with public concerns over food safety, says Jia Hepeng, who believes communication is the key to resolving China’s conflict over genetically modified crops.

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The heated debate over genetically modified (GM) crops that has been raging in China in recent months has highlighted a communication gulf between scientists and the public, as well as the urgent need to improve the government’s transparency efforts.

Late last year, the Ministry of Agriculture announced that it had issued biosafety licenses to two pest-resistant Bacillus thurigiensis (Bt) rice varieties and one phytase maize, which can help livestock digest phosphorus, an important nutritional element found in maize and soy feeds.

The announcement caused an immediate furore. In early March, amid the annual plenary meeting of the National People’s Congress (NPC), China’s legislature, 120 Chinese academics, mostly from the humanities and social sciences, signed a public petition asking the agriculture ministry to withdraw the certificates.

The petition made some strong claims: “The approval for the commercialisation of genetically modified rice and maize enables China to become the world’s first country to plant genetically modified staple food, thereby threatening national security.”

At the same time, at the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Congress (CPPCC) – China’s advisory “upper house” – the Zhigong Party also raised a motion asking that genetically modified crops be developed with caution.

Some environmental groups agree. “The current research has not been going long enough to test the genetic toxicity to later generations if genetically modified rice becomes a major food source for China’s 1.3 billion people,” says Fang Lifeng, a food safety campaigner at Beijing-based Greenpeace China.

But most GM scientists and biosafety experts think these worries are unnecessary. “We have already carried out intensive research into genetically modified crops and there is no evidence to support the concerns about their impact on the environment,” says Wu Kongming, a biosafety scientist at the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences (CAAS) and a member of the National Biosafety Committee on genetically modified food, which advises the government on certification.

Certainly, it is clear that the public petition confused biosafety licenses with commercialisation. The certificates did not mean the product would immediately appear on the open market. Large-scale production trials, development of more productive seeds with genes from approved varieties and evaluation of the seeds are all required before commercialisation can go ahead. This process will take another five years at least.

“Having gained the certificates, we will be able to carry out bigger field trials and collect much more data for testing safety. And, if we find any problems, then the process towards commercialisation can be stopped,” says Zhang Qifa, a leading scientist at Wuhan-based Huazhong Agricultural University, who has developed the certified rice varieties.

The 2009 annual report of the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA) states that, if commercialised, Bt rice could bring estimated annual benefits worth US$4 billion (27.3 billion yuan) to up to 440 million rice farmers in China.

Greenpeace’s Fang Lifeng says that most of the benefits will in fact go to big biotech companies, such as Monsanto, and farmers will lose out because they will be unable to obtain conventional seeds.

But Hu Ruifa, a senior researcher at the Beijing-based Centre for Chinese Agricultural Policy (CCAP) at the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), disagrees. Hu says studies conducted by his centre have indicated that, in the case of genetically modified cotton, which covers nearly 70% of the land farmed for cotton in China, farmers have benefited and that it is still easy to get conventional seeds.

In 2006, a research team from Cornell University presented findings – based on CCAP data – indicating that, while farmers of Bt cotton had benefited during the first seven years of planting, their profit in 2005 was actually lower than that of non-GM cotton farmers. The reason given was that both groups of farmers had been forced to use extra pesticide to deal with the so-called secondary pests not targeted by the Bt gene and that those planting genetically modified cotton had to spend more money on seeds.

The study was widely quoted by international groups campaigning against the use of genetically modified crops. But Hu Ruifa says that some of those opting to plant the cheaper, non-GM seeds are doing so because the borer worm population targeted by the Bt gene has been significantly reduced following several years of plantation – and conventional farmers have therefore been able to reduce their pesticide use as well. The year examined by the Cornell research, 2005, was also unusual in its large-scale outbreak of the secondary pest, he says. Hu believes that, with improved management, GM-crop farmers can better deal with non-targeted secondary pests and reduce the need for fertiliser.

He also claims that year-on-year consistency in the size of the area used for genetically modified cotton – which only fluctuates with market demands and price – shows Chinese farmers are using GM seeds because they have confidence in them and not because they are unable to obtain conventional varieties.

Other challengers to the adoption of genetically modified crops focus on management issues. In late March, Greenpeace reported that it had found rice containing the Bt protein, suspected to have come from Huazhong Agricultural University, on sale in the southern Chinese city of Changsha. It is one of many such reports produced by the organisation since 2005. In the European market, rice food imported from China has, on several occasions, also been found to contain Bt ingredients.

Opponents say that the illegal plantation of genetically modified rice is a sign of lax management and that there is no guarantee that the crop would be well monitored and controlled if commercialised.

Zhang Qifa from Huazhong Agricultural University admits that the rice found in Changsha could have originated in his laboratory – not as a result of an intentional bid to sell genetically modified seeds for profits but because some samples could have been stolen during a national science show. “Illegal sales could be wiped out if legal, and better, GM rice varieties were commercialised,” he adds.

But opponents say the government is unlikely to effectively manage genetically modified rice if it goes onto the mass market, partly because of a lack of transparency in the decision-making process concerning biosafety and future commercialisation certificates. In the midst of all the protests, the Ministry of Agriculture admitted that the biosafety certificates were issued in August 2009, even though the formal announcement was not made until November. This acknowledgement triggered widespread criticism, to which the agriculture ministry officials did not respond.

“The officials have poor experience in dealing with crisis, and this will only strengthen the opposition,” says Hu. Zhang, on the other hand, thinks it is natural that the government did not announce the approvals earlier: “It is part of the ministry’s regular workstream, so why should it be widely publicised?”

Despite Zhang’s claim, he, like most other scientists in the field, is now aware that communication around the issue must be improved in order to help the public better understand the science of genetically modified crops.

No scientific research published in a peer-reviewed journal has found evidence that GM crops pose a significant health or environmental threat, but many environmental activists and large sections of the public reject the safety claims made by industry and scientists. By contrast, research on the potential harm of genetically modified crops that is publicised or sponsored by environmental groups often gets wider coverage, despite not being published in authoritative journals.

Such protests even led to cries of corruption. Many believe that scientists in this field are members of a vested interest group, promoting genetically modified crops solely for their own commercial benefit. Zhang rejects this claim. He says that scientists do not stand to profit from commercialisation because the intellectual-property rights over the GM crops belong to the government. Moreover, biosafety is evaluated independently, adds Wu Kongming. “We biosafety evaluation experts cannot share interests with GM scientists, because our interests are conflicting. All [biosafety and health] evaluations are based on scientific evidence.”

Chinese scientists operating in the field are now waking up to the need to boost communication efforts. In a CAS-commissioned consultative report on prospects for genetically modified crops – still a work in progress – a communication section has been added. Out of the hundreds of academic reports like this carried out so far, this is the first to include such a thing.

Of course, this report alone will not necessarily lead to improved communication. The scientific approach – only admitting conclusions based on peer-reviewed evidence – does not easily transfer to the public domain, where people like to hear sensational stories. In the case of genetic modification, this often means negative reporting.

Worries about the potential risks to future generations are often rejected by scientists as meaningless, or as philosophical rather than scientific questions, since there is no evidence on which to base an experiment. But these concerns must also be taken seriously. At the same time as increasing long-term safety assessments, scientists need to explain their actions to the public.

Greater efforts need to be made to communicate ongoing research in a readable way and to improve systems for decision-making, regulation and monitoring. Adrian Ely, a research fellow for science and technology policy at the United Kingdom’s University of Sussex, who has studied GM policies in China, says: “Transparency is a key issue to building long-term public trust.”


Jia Hepeng is editor-in-chief of Science News Bi-Weekly, published by the Chinese Academy of Sciences, and co-founder of the Climate Change Journalists’ Club.

Homepage image from Sciencenet blog

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Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

为什么我们需要转基因粮食

我记得当年袁隆平发现杂交水稻时《人民日报》对他的评论,说他解决了13亿中国人民的粮食问题。

既然中国人民的口粮问题已经得到解决,转基因作物的大量种植显然是没有必要的。我们暂且不谈波及全球的粮食危机,而且转基因作物完全可能是危机的肇事者之一。

至于文中提到的抗虫基因,或许比喷洒大量农药更好,但也不是完全奏效对不对?除非你可以把作物的天敌抵抗基因全部转移到作物的染色体上。害虫控制的科学方法有很多种,你们那些科学家们,不能找出一种民众更容易接受的方法吗?

除此以外,你还有什么理由说我们需要转基因粮食?难道它们能让我们的身体更强壮?

Why do we need GM food?

I remember when Yuan Longping discovered hybrid rice, and "The People's Daily" commented that he had just solved the food problems of 1.3 billion Chinese people.
Since the Chinese population's grain ration problems have already been solved, a large number of cultivation of the GM crops are not necessary. At present, we don't talk about the global food crisis, but GM crops could easily be among the factors that caused this crisis.
As to the pest-resistant genes mentioned in the article, maybe they're better than spraying pesticides, but they're also not completely effective, are they? Unless you could transform all the pest-resistant genes into the chromosome of the crop.
There are many different ways to scientifically approach the control of pests, couldn't scientists find an easier way to make it acceptable for the masses?
Also,what is the reason that you say that we need GM food? Surely it doesn't make our body stronger?

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

关于风险的同行评审文章

大部分的转基因食品仍然被欧盟禁止。官员们非常小心谨慎,在转基因食品在实验室中研发的16年后,还没有充足的时间去确定转基因食品的全部健康风险。在法国一个实验室进行的一项实验引起了人们对食品安全问题的极大关注,在这项实验中,研究人员让老鼠食用3个品种的商用转基因玉米,结果导致肝脏和肾脏受损。这的确刊登在一本同行评审期刊——《国际生物科学期刊》中(在本网站最近发表的关于转基因玉米的文章中有引用到)。这篇文章名为“三种不同转基因玉米品种对哺乳动物健康的影响效果比较”。http://www.biolsci.org/v05p0706.htm

生物技术公司污蔑这个研究(他们有一个网络恶意发帖的合伙活动,用来传播他们的观点,同时还有一个名为“农民基因”的假情报网站)。这些大型种子公司,如美国孟山都农业生物技术公司和陶氏化学公司,其投资项目为生物技术食品创造了光明的未来。中国应给这些自由市场、绿色燃料研究让出一条路,然后开展独立的研究!
——Juana Elena “别碰我们的玉米!”(“Hands off our corn!”)

Peer-review articles on risks

Most GM food still is banned by the EU . Officials are cautious and 16 years after it was invented in the lab, insufficient time has elapsed to determine the full health risks of gene spliced food. Food safety concerns heightened when liver and kidney damage resulted from an experiment with rats consuming 3 types of commercial GM corn in a French lab. This was indeed written up in a peer-review journal:The International Journal of Biological Sciences" (cited in a recent article about GM Corn that ran on yr website!) The article is called "A Comparison of the Effects of Three GM Corn Varieties on Mammalian Health".http://www.biolsci.org/v05p0706.htm

Biotech companies smeared the research (they have a consorted campaign of cybertrolls that disseminate their views, as well as a disinformation site called Farmer Gene). These mega seed companies, like Monsanto and Dow, fund projects that put biotech food in a good light. China should be spared these free-market, greed-fuelled studies and carry out independent research!
--Juana Elena from "Hands off our corn!"

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

转基因研究真的没有个人利益考虑吗?

如果是30年前科学家说他们的研究成果属于国家,没有个人利益,我是比较相信的。但如今,学者与商业利益是有千丝万缕联系的,并不需要通过出卖知识产权这种显性的形式出现,但科学家可能是商业公司聘请的隐形专家、顾问。另外,科学家需要国家或社会科研经费来支持,这就需要科研成果来证明自己的价值,从而申请更多的经费。但这些科研是对直接使用者、对大众有利的吗?他们会考虑需要花更多的钱买种子的农民的利益吗?农业生物多样性的丧失进入过他们的视线吗?

Is it really true that research in genetic modification is free of personal interests?

Thirty years ago, if scientists had said that their research results belonged to their country and were free of personal interests, I would be more inclined to believe it. Nowadays, scholars and commercial interests are closely related in numerous ways. Without the need to sell intellectual property as an obvious method, scientists are probably employed by commercial companies as unseen experts and consultants. In addition, scientists need research funding from their governments or the society, and this requires that they prove their worth via research results, and thus to apply for even more funding. However, do these kinds of research benefit the user or the public directly? Do the scientists consider the farmers’ interests when they have to spend more on buying seeds? Did the loss of diversity in agro biology enter their horizon? (translated by smc)