Golden rice scandal undermines China’s GM food push

The controversary over the use of children in GM rice trials has seen three officials sacked and jeopardised the future success of China’s GM research, say observers.

China has sacked three officials for approving the testing of vitamin A-enriched Golden Rice, a genetically modified (GM) organism, on school children without appropriate consent, according to state news agency Xinhua.

The study, part of a Sino-US joint research project, was designed to test the efficacy of Golden Rice in alleviating vitamin A deficiency. However, it triggered a public outcry earlier this year when it was exposed that the informed-consent forms used in the trial did not mention that the rice was genetically modified.

Read: US researchers confirm use of children in GM golden rice trial

Although the government was quick to initiate an internal investigation into the ethics of the trial, observers say it may not be enough to dispel popular distrust of GM technology in China.

Jiang Gaoming, a leading scientist at the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Botany, and a vocal opponent of the commercialisation of GM crops, condemned the golden rice trial.

“The reason why the public is so concerned about the genetically modified golden rice is because we all care for our health and the health of our children,” Jiang told chinadialogue.

“The Golden Rice saga exposed that vested interests have wilfully deceived the public and used innocent children for experiment in order to promote their products,” he said.

However, popular science writer Fang Zhouzi suggested that anti-GM campaigners and the media were undermining China’s progress on GM technology by overreacting to the case and demonising GM research.

Fang told chinadialogue that the authorities had emphasised “the mistakes in the experiment and the consequent punishment, while failing to mention the harmlessness of the trial and the sound safety record of GM food.”

“After this case, not only is Golden Rice unlikely to be introduced in China to help children with vitamin A deficiency, but also other GM research and the promotion of GM food could face greater difficulties,” said Fang.

Read: GM crops blamed for rise in "superweeds" in the US

“[As a result] the gap in GM technology between China and developed countries, such as the United States, will enlarge,” he added.

Responding to Fang’s argument, Jiang said that he supported GM research, but “most research carried out at the moment is money-driven, rather than focused on the advancement of national technology”.

China made biotechnology a development priority in its latest Five-Year Plan (2011-2015) and according to NGO Greenpeace, the state has invested more than 21 billion yuan into GM research.