China poised for GM future as rice yields leap 10pcBy Roger Highfield, Science Editor
Farmers growing genetically modified rice in field trials have reported crop yields up by 10 per cent, pesticide use down 80 per cent and fewer pesticide-related health problems.
The results, published today, place China on the threshold of commercialising GM rice, the world's most important crop.
China's decision could influence the future of GM crops in the rest of the world but it is taking longer to reach than many scientists expected.
"It's as though China is watching Europe while the world watches China.," said Prof Mike Gale of the John Innes Centre, Norwich.
Prof Michael Lipton of Sussex University added that China has delayed making a decision because it is worried that, if it exports GM rice, it could face a boycott because of the anti GM sentiment in Europe and campaigning of green groups.
The first study of the impact of GM rice at farm level, in this case two of the four GM varieties in farm-level preproduction trials, is reported today in Science by researchers in China and at Rutgers University and the University of California, Davis.
"The performance of insect-resistant GM rice in trials has been impressive." said Prof Jikun Huang, the director of the Center for Chinese Agricultural Policy at the Chinese Academy of Sciences.
"Agricultural biotechnology may boost China's agriculture, improve the nation's food security, and increase the income and improve the health of rice farmers.
"Small and poor farm households benefit from adopting GM rice by both higher crop yields and reduced use of pesticides, which also contributes to the improved health of farmers," said co-author Prof Carl Pray of Rutgers.
China began GM crop research in the 1980s but, said Prof Huang: "One of major reasons that commercialisation has not proceeded is that there has been little independent evidence on whether GM food crops would really improve farmer income and rice productivity."
To address this, the team conducted a farm survey in eight insect-resistant GM rice pre-production field trial villages in China. The team examined two genetically modified rice strains: the Xianyou 63, created to be resistant to rice stem borer - which affects 70 per cent of rice growing areas- and leaf roller through insertion of a Bacillus thuringiensis gene, and the Youming 86 variety, which is insect-resistant due to introduction of a resistance gene from the cowpea plant.
Overall, use of the GM rice enabled the farmers to reduce pesticide use by 15 pounds per acre, an 80-per cent reduction when compared with pesticide use by farmers using conventional varieties.
Prof Huang added: "Sixty-two per cent of the farmers who planted insect-resistant GM rice applied no pesticides to their GM rice fields, and nearly 90 per cent of them sprayed no pesticides for the borers."
The average yield of the GM Xianyou 63 and GM II-Youming 86 were six per cent higher, and average yield of the GM Xianyou 63 variety alone was nine per cent higher than that of conventional rice varieties.
"Annually, more than 50,000 farmers are poisoned in farm fields, of which some 400-500 die," Prof Huang said. But the survey indicated that none of the farmers in the trial reported experiencing adverse health effects from pesticide use in either 2002 or 2003