Should government bypass public opposition to GM rice?

Chinese experts differ as to whether public opinion should be taken into consideration when deciding whether to approve the sale of genetically modified rice

The decision to approve the sale of genetically-modified (GM) rice should not be constrained by public opposition, according to a leading biotech researcher.

Zhang Qifa, the lead researcher of China’s GM rice research and the dean of Life Science and Technology at Huazhong Agricultural University, said at a GM rice tasting event last weekend that following public opinion might not be a smart way of making decisions on the future of GM rice.

“The current difficulty is that the development of our national GM industrialisation has stopped, and the commercial cultivation of GM rice has become impossible,” he told the audience of the tasting event in Huazhong Agricultural University, according to Beijing Times.

“Personally, I think we are missing out on a great opportunity,” Zhang said. “Up till now, the agriculture department does not even have a plan for advancing GM rice.”

China’s GM rice research started in the late 1990s. In 2009, two varieties of GM rice developed by Zhang and his colleagues at Huazhong Agricultural University received safety certificates from the Ministry of Agriculture, a crucial step towards commercial approval.

“Four years have passed now, and we are further away from GM rice commercialisation,” Zhang is reported to have said. The safety certificates for GM rice expire next year.

However, opponents of GM research said the authorities were right to be more circumspect.

Jiang Gaoming, a vocal opponent of GM crops and lead scientist at the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Botany, wrote on his blog that “If scientific experiential and practical evidence should prove that GM staple food is neither prolific, green nor healthy, then the the agriculture department’s failure to act is their best accomplishment.”

He went on to argue that the public have every right to question the safety of GM crops and “the authorities responsible for environmental protection, health and public security should all be involved in the discussion to provide a safe and reliable food environment for the general public.”

Jiang Jingsong, a Tsinghua professor who has initiated an online petition calling for the government to delay the approval of GM rice, told Beijing News that the approval of GM crops concerns consumers’ right to know and choose rather than scientific advancement.

“It is a basic principle of civilised society to let its people to have freedom of choice. We should not trick people into eating GM by listening to one side of the argument and saying that they are safe."