(NaturalNews) The Chinese government will not permit the issuance of new biosafety certificates to research groups that were once allowed to grow genetically modified rice and corn, likely part of Beijing's ongoing effort to prevent the spread of GM crops in the world's most populous country.
The Ministry of Agriculture, the issuing authority for such permits, said it would not renew permission for the groups to grow two varieties of GM rice and a single variety of transgenic corn.
The current permits expired August 17, according to a report in Science magazine, which added that the reason for the decision was not clear, but that it nevertheless "raised questions about the future of related research in China."
The agriculture ministry had made a big deal out of approval of the GM rice certificates in August 2009. The permits allowed a group at the Huazhong Agricultural University in Wuhan to grow a pair of varieties of rice that included a gene from the Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) bacteria, ostensibly for pest resistance.
'Concern about public safety'
At the same time, the ministry okayed the production of a strain of corn developed by the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences' Biotechnology Research Institute in Beijing. Researchers there had changed the GM corn strain so that its kernels contained phytase, an additive used in livestock feed that supposedly boosts phosphorus absorption, to produce larger livestock. Each of the prior certificates were initially valid for five years.
As further reported by Science:
Since the certificates were issued, however, public skepticism about the benefits of GM crops has grown in China. Some scientists conducting GM plant research have been attacked when giving public lectures.
There is no consensus as to why the agriculture ministry let the certificates lapse; some environmentalists have said they believe that it was because of worries among the general public about the dangers and hazards of GM crops.
"We believe that loopholes in assessing and monitoring [GM] research, as well as the public concern around safety issues are the most important reasons that the certifications have not been renewed," Wang Jing, a Greenpeace official based in Beijing, wrote in an email to Science.
But others think that agricultural economics are in play and made the biggest impact on the ministry's decision. After years of agricultural expansion, China is getting close to being self-sufficient in the production of conventional rice varieties. As such, the ministry reached a decision to no longer commercialize Bt rice, according to Huang Jikun, director of the Chinese Academy of Sciences' Center for Chinese Agricultural Policy. He told Science magazine that now, with commercialization out of the equation, there was little point in reauthorizing the existing permits. He also said that "rising public concerns [regarding] the safety of GM rice" most likely held some sway over the government's decision.
Whatever the reasons, however, the decision is a major shift away from transgenic rice in China, which had once been seen as promising in the next wave of agricultural development.
China has already ended import of American GMO corn feed
Cao Cong, a China police expert at the University of Nottingham in England, wrote recently in a post on The Conversation, an Australian site, that, five years ago, "China was widely expected to soon put GM rice on the country's dining tables."
But since the ministry's decision, the Bt rice project "is now to all intents and purposes dead and buried," he further wrote, attributing the program's demise to an "anti-GM movement whose power and influence are more than matched by its fervour and sheer, undiluted paranoia."
The decision does not reflect a big change in the country's general policy regarding agricultural biotechnology, Huang said, according to Science. In fact, the Chinese government has increased its support for Bt corn research, other experts have said. And GM corn has not received as much public scrutiny, primarily because it is fed to livestock.
But this is not the first time China has rejected GM crops. As Natural News reported in July, the government suspended issuance of permits to import American-produced animal feed ingredients made from corn.