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Enhancing staple crop could improve food security, boost farmer incomes,
China and other Asian countries are moving closer to approving genetically
enhanced varieties of rice ? the primary staple crop in Asia ? for
commercial production to feed a growing, more affluent population.
"All signals indicate that China may begin commercial cultivation of biotech
rice within the year," said Randy Hautea, the Manila-based global
coordinator of the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech
Applications (ISAAA), in an interview posted on a Web site sanctioned by the
official news service of the Chinese government 1.
This would mark the first time that a genetically enhanced crop was widely
used as a food staple in Asia, although the Philippines was the first Asian
country to approve a biotech food crop for planting: Bt corn.
China has been field testing several different varieties of genetically
enhanced rice for several years, primarily to develop strains with built-in
protection from stem borers, sheath blight and bacterial blight ?- the three
principal pests and diseases that afflict the rice crop in Asia 2.
But research is also being conducted on "green rice" that requires less
fertilizer, rice that can withstand droughts and golden rice, which is
enhanced with betacarotene that stimulates the production of vitamin A in
the human body 3.
With 20 percent of the world's population ?- which is becoming more affluent
and consuming more food ? China has long been looking at ways to improve
food production to feed its 1.3 billion people and to boost farmer incomes.
It spends more on biotech rice research than any other country 4 and is
second only to the United States in the amount invested in overall crop
biotechnology research, according to a recent study by a researcher for the
University of Minnesota's Center for Food and Agricultural Policy 5.
China has already approved the planting of Bt cotton ? enhanced with a
naturally occurring soil protein to ward off insect pests ?- in order to
raise farmer incomes in rural areas, which lag far behind China's many
booming cities. In 2004, genetically enhanced cotton was planted on
two-thirds of the farmland planted with cotton.
According to one study, Bt cotton yield gains in China were 5.8 percent
greater than conventional varieties in 1999, 54.7 percent higher in 2000 and
10.9 percent greater in 2001. And the revenue per hectare for Bt cotton was
$351 higher in 1999, $367 greater in 2000 and $277 more in 20016 .
Government officials are hoping for similar yield and income gains from
biotech rice. Estimates vary, but one test plot of Bt rice showed a yield
increase of 15 percent over conventional varieties 7. Hautea said field
tests of two biotech varieties produced yield gains of between 4 and 8
percent and increased net income between US$80 and US$100 per hectare 8.
"The economic gains from GMO adoption are substantial," said an August 2003
report on the economic impacts of genetically enhanced crops in China. "In
the most optimistic scenario, where China commercializes both Bt cotton and
GM rice, the welfare gains amount to an additional annual income of about
US$5 billion in 2010. This amounts to about $3.50 per person. This is not a
small amount in a country, where according to the World Bank, 18 percent of
the population had to survive with less than $1 per day in 1998. 9 "
While China is perhaps the closest to approving biotech rice for planting,
several other Asian countries are conducting research on the staple crop in
the hope the new technology can improve food security.
The Philippines is field testing biotech rice and Vietnam, Thailand and
Indonesia are testing biotech varieties in the laboratory 10. In India,
where farmers grow and sell Bt cotton, there are at least 20 academic and
research institutions involved in plant biotech research covering 16 crops,
including rice 11.
Many Indian researchers hope to usher in a second "Green Revolution" ? which
triggered a more than threefold increase in rice and wheat production in the
developing countries of Asia between 1961 and 2000 ? while adding another
facet to its already-booming, knowledge-based economy.
Like in China, Indian farmers who planted biotech cotton have seen
significant yield gains ? India's agricultural minister said yields for Bt
cotton were 30 to 35 percent higher in 2004 than for conventional varieties.
The study on the economic impacts on biotech crops in China suggested the
gains from biotech rice could be even more widespread.
"Given the importance of rice for agricultural production, employment and
food budget shares, the gains from GM rice adoption are orders of magnitude
larger than the Bt cotton gains," concluded the report 12.
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