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.

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.

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