The Dangers of Genetically Engineered Rice

Standard Page - 2011-07-11
GE rice was on the verge of approval for commercialization in China, the birthplace of rice. This move would have had devastating consequences: GE rice will be a severe threat to the genetic heritage of thousands of local rice strains, as well as the health of 1.3 billion people.

GE rice was on the verge of approval for commercialization in China, the birthplace of rice. This move would have had devastating consequences: GE rice is a severe threat to the genetic heritage of thousands of local rice strains, as well as the health of 1.3 billion people.

Rice is the world’s most important staple food, eaten by more than half of the global population every day. Domesticated rice originated in China, in the Yangtze River Valley tens of thousands of years ago. China has thousands of unique varieties of rice, some of which are unique regional strains dating back to millennia ago.

Rice is a key part of Chinese culture: it is eaten every day in the form of steamed rice, rice noodles, rice cakes and in processed foods. It also plays an important part during festivals and holidays, when it is made into special preparations.

But China’s unique rice heritage is under threat as genetic engineering (GE) continues to creep up on our most valuable food.

Rice safety on the brink

Illegal GE rice found by Greenpeace testing.

In 2011, Greenpeace found that GE rice had already illegally contaminated the food supply, though it is still in the seed trial stage. In Hubei province – site of the seed trials – we found GE rice being served in restaurants. Previously, in 2010 and 2005, we also found GE rice on the market in Hubei, Hunan and Jiangxi provinces, and planted illegally in the fields in Hubei and Hunan.

Studies of the potential ecological risks of GE rice show that there is a high risk of gene flow from GE rice to non-GE rice varieties. Research also shows that GE rice out-crossing may threaten wild rice varieties.

If GE rice cannot even be contained in the testing and approval stages, it will be impossible to control it after its approval for commercialized planting. GE contamination of the environment will put China’s biodiversity at risk, especially the hundreds of ancient strains of rice that are grown here.

Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt): Toxic Rice

The two strains of GE rice contain a gene that codes for an inactive toxin in Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), a soil bacterium. The Bt toxin is normally inactive and is only produced in spores by the bacterial under stressful, life-threatening conditions. Under natural conditions, only certain insects will be poisoned by the Bt toxin after consuming the spores. Organic farmers have used Bacillus thuringienisis sporesin situations of serious pest infections, but now Monsanto has patented the same gene and engineered it into plants so that they produce the preactivated (or modified) Bt toxin to kill insects.

But there are many problems at risk with plants engineered to produce their own Bt. In marked contrast to organic farmers’ occasional application of the Bt toxin, GE plants produce the toxins during their entire growth period, starting from germination. This means that insects are continually exposed to the toxin, and are therefore under constant pressure to develop resistance.

Laboratory studies have shown that Bt crops may also release the Bt toxin through their roots into the soil. The accumulation of these toxins could represent a risk to soil ecosystems.

The Bt toxin also kills beneficial insects and could be harmful to people. Though Monsanto claims that the toxin would be broken down in the human digestive system, a study in Canada found the toxin present in the blood of pregnant women and even their foetuses.

China does not need GE rice, as it already produces enough for its own people. China should follow in the steps of Thailand – another country known for its hundreds of varieties of rice – and ban GE rice, for the safety of consumers around the world.

Ecological farming is the safest solution to the food crisis and looming climate change disasters. Keeping rice GE-free is not just about consumer choice or the environment – it’s a lot bigger than that. It’s a matter of global food security, human rights and survival.

Case study: Bayer rice

The German chemical giant Bayer is trying to sell a herbicide-resistant variety of GE rice to countries for commercial planting. Conventional and organic rice is at great risk from being contaminated by GE strains and controlled by multinational corporations and governments.

The rice made by Bayer (called LL62) has been genetically engineered to withstand high doses of glufosinate, a herbicide sprayed on rice fields to control a wide range of weeds. It’s no surprise that Bayer also makes glufosinate. Any use of the GE rice will boost their chemical sales as a consequence. While this is a nice set up for Bayer shareholders, it places farmers, consumers and the environment at risk. Glufosinate is considered to be harmful to human health and is being phased out in Europe - its  use will not be allowed under revised EU legislation.

Bayer’s GE rice has been shown to have a different nutritional composition than its natural counterpart. It also has a high risk of producing superweeds by transferring its new gene to weedy relatives. Rice traders and producers worldwide reject the GE rice, because of high economic risks.

How Greenpeace got China to say 'no' to GE rice

It took seven years, one bald guy, one determined Swiss woman, and successive teams of young campaigners but finally late September 2011 Beijing said it was suspending the commercialization of genetically-engineered (GE) rice. Here's a historical look at one of our earliest - and most successful - campaigns in East Asia.