Genetically Modified Rice Seeds Discovered in Hunan Province

By By Xie Liangbing, Jiang Yunzhang
Published: 2010-06-25

Nation, page 9, issue 470, May 24, 2010
Translated by Tang Xiangyang
Original article:

Though the Chinese government prohibits the commercial sale of genetically modified (GM) rice, GM rice seeds are still being sold to farmers in Hunan Province.

During a recent investigation, 1,500 kilograms of suspected GM seeds were discovered in three villages close to the city of Yueyang, which is about 150km north of Hunan's provincial capital, Changsha.

The suspected seeds were confiscated and those that had already been planted destroyed - with the affected farmers compensated according to the amount they had paid for the seeds.

According to a report in Changde Daily, at least five kinds of suspected GM rice seeds were also discovered to have been delivered to the city of Changde, also in Hunan province, from neighboring Hubei in April.

The Changde Agricultural Bureau sent some of the confiscated seeds to the provincial agricultural bureau in order to determine whether they were indeed genetically modified.

Yi Zongyun, chief agricultural expert with the Changde Agricultural Bureau told the EO that he was still waiting to hear the results of the test. Though Yi repeatedly stated, "the quantity (of GM rice seeds) involved didn't amount to much."

Since 2005, when cases of the illicit cultivation of GM rice crops began to be exposed in Hubei, signs that GM rice was also being cultivated in the northern areas of neighboring Hunan province also began to appear.

The Private Sale of Illegal Rice

The private trade in GM rice seeds in Yueyang and Changde has been an open secret, however, in the wake of the recent government crackdown, buying the seeds has become much more difficult.

When asked by reporters posing as prospective buyers, almost all the stores selling agricultural products responded in the same way: "Recently the government has become more strict, we are currently not selling GM seeds."

Last year, all the above merchants were organized by a high-level rice seed salesman to visit two plots of land; one planted with GM seeds, the other planted with ordinary rice seeds. The salesman intended to show off the high quality of GM seeds so that the local merchants would promote the seeds in their own villages.

According to local farmers, while ordinary rice seeds are sold at a price of seven to twenty yuan per kilogram, the price of their GM counterparts is thirty to forty yuan per kilogram. The EO has learned, however, that the local seed merchants were given seeds from the GM seed salesman for free.
Though initially claiming to not have any GM rice seeds for sale, merchants in Yueyang and Changde eventually chose to sell some to the EO reporter. Among the seeds bought, there are three brands of GM rice seeds which were confirmed by an independent third-party agency located in Hong Kong to contain Bt proteins. This protein may prove that the seeds were genetically modified, according to an unnamed expert with the China Academy of Science.

So far, the Hunan Provincial Agricultural Bureau is still unsure whether those rice seeds found in Yueyang and Changde are genetically modified.

Where are the Seeds From?

Despite their packages indicating they are produced in Hunan, Hubei and Jiangsu respectively, the EO has found through investigation that all the GM rice seeds sold in Hunan are from Hubei Province.

The three manufacturers of GM rice seeds are Wuhan Huihua Sannong Seed Company, Wuhan Dunhuang Seed Company and Wuhan Jiuhuan Seed Company. However, the Wuhan Jiuhuan Seed Company is a fake company as it is not registered in its local industrial and commercial bureau.

Wuhan Dunhuang, whose registered capital is 30 million yuan, is a subsidiary of Dunhuang Seed Co Ltd, a seed enterprise listed in the A-share market. An EO reporter got in touch with Dunhuang Seed, but an employee said the company did not have any knowledge about GM seeds.

Wuhan Huihua Sannong was co-founded by the Waikee Group, a Hong Kong-based enterprise listed in the H-share market, and Huazhong Agricultural University which is the only agency that holds the safety certificate of GM rice seeds issued by the Ministry of Agriculture. The university holds 30 percent of shares of Wuhan Huihua Sannong.

Fan Jingqun, a member of the university's CPC committee, said it had only developed three hybrid rice seeds for Wuhan Huihua Sannong and they had not commercialized their GM rice seeds nor had they allowed any company to produce, develop and sell such seeds.

"We think they some people may be gaining the seeds through unlawful channels or they might be privately produced," Fan said of the GM seeds sold in Hunan.

Since Huazhong Agricultural University is the only holder of the GM rice seed safety certificate, it is natural that when GM rice seeds are found, they are believed to be connected; however, Fan challenges this assertion: "Yes, there are GM rice seeds on the market, but that has nothing to do with us. We are not the producer of the illegal seeds found but a victim of false accusation."

Where do those GM rice seeds end up?

Since all the GM rice seeds in Hunan have been destroyed by the local government, GM rice should no longer exist in the province. However, according to a report from Green Peace, a non-governmental organization, at least 850 to 1,200 tons of GM rice had been sold on the market in 2004 in Hubei Province. In 2005, 23.5 to 27.9 tons of GM rice seeds were sold there with their output volume reaching 11,750 to 14,500 kilograms.

From July 2009 to February 2010, in cooperation with a third-party detection agency, Green Peace discovered four rice brands from Hubei, Hunan and Fujian and three brands of rice flour that all contained GM ingredients.

Longzhou Rice Company, located in Yueyang city, was once a rice supplier to Wal-mart; however, since its products were found to contain GM ingredients, its sales volume has been zero according to the head of the company. He emphasized that he only sold GM rice in the surrounding areas.

The Longzhou Rice Company mainly buys its rice from local farmers. The head of the company said he does not know whether or not the seeds he buys are genetically modified at the time of purchase. EO reporters also learned that since the appearance of GM rice is the same as ordinary rice, farmers tend to mix the two and do not inform their buyers that the rice they are purchasing may contain GM rice kernels.

A local seed merchant told an EO reporter that, because he was afraid of being investigated by the Ministry of Agriculture, he had sent his GM rice seeds to his hometown of Zhuzhou in Hunan Province for his family to plant.

This type of action further expands the illegal spread of GM rice seeds.

Research agencies and seed manufacturers of GM rice are eager to commercially spread the seeds because the safety certificate obtained by Huazhong Agricultural University is only valid from August 17, 2009 to August 17, 2014. Fan Jingqun said that during its experimental trial, GM rice was welcomed among farmers and that the Huazhong Agricultural University has been urging the central government to commercialize it.

An expert with the university's lab devoted to genetic modification also claimed that the researchers working in the lab had been eating the two brands of GM rice for a long time. They said the rice tasted good and they were all healthy.

"We are willing to restate that, once the GM rice is commercialized, we will eat it ourselves," he said.

However, in addition to the safety certificate, GM rice seed manufacturers have to get a seed production license and a seed sales license from the government before they can sell GM seeds.

Experts said that once the GM rice seeds were allowed to be bought and sold, farmers and related enterprises would be the first to be benefit.

The EO learned that, though the yield and taste of GM rice seeds is not advantageous when compared to their ordinary counterparts and their cost is three to four times higher than the latter, farmers are still willing to plant GM seeds because they are insect resistant and save the cost of buying pesticide.

In an effort to force the government to allow the commercialization of GM rice seeds, seed franchisers are providing them to farmers for free.

Though it is a hot debate in Chinese society as to whether the GM rice seeds should be allowed to be commercialized, ordinary Chinese people still know nothing about the new rice product. They are scared, though they are not sure what they are scared about.

What Does the Public Fear?

So far, China has approved the commercialization of GM cotton, tomatoes, pimentos, papayas, poplar and petunias and has also approved the distribution of safety certificates to produce and consume GM corn and rice.

Nevertheless, the public remains puzzled and in doubt about whether it is safe to eat GM rice. Farmers who plant GM rice seeds in Hunan also keep a plot of land for planting ordinary rice to meet the demand of their families.

They think, if even the insects are not eating it, how can people eat it?

Fan Jingqun insisted to the EO the rice was welcomed among farmers, and the media has incorrectly portrayed the farmers as not willing to eat GM rice.

Many people's worries stem from the fact that the Ministry of Agriculture still prohibits the commercialization of GM rice and only allows its production and use in certain areas of Hubei Province, which leads people to believe that the government is still unsure if it is safe for people to consume. So far, the Ministry of Agriculture has not explained to the public why it is hesitant to allow the commercialization of GM rice and why the public was informed through Green Peace and not the government itself that GM rice has received a safety certificate from the central government.

Then, is it Safe to Eat GM Rice?

An expert with the Huazhong Agriculture University's genetically modified lab said that the Bt protein; the main ingredient found in GM rice which attacks the intestine of insects, does not harm the human body.

But an unnamed expert with the Chinese Academy of Science told an EO reporter, the Ministry of Agriculture and experts of GM food should explain to the public why GM rice is safe to eat; they should provide evidence and make everything clear to the public.

He added, "Both the Ministry of Agriculture and the experts are doing a poor job at providing the public with information."

This article was edited by Andrew Ward and Paul Pennay