By Caroline Henshaw
China’s adoption of genetically-modified crops will provide the “tipping point” for global attitudes to biotechnology, according to two leading lights of the private and public sector debate on biotechnology in agriculture.
Speaking after a panel discussion on biotechnology moderated by The Wall Street Journal as part of a conference on sustainable agriculture in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, Sir Gordon Conway of Imperial College, London, said he expected China to approve genetically-modified crops for mainstream cultivation as early as 2012.
“I think next year or the year after they will release a rice that is GM and that will change everything. They’ve got 30-40 [GM crop tests] underway right now—we’re very close,” he said.
For advocates of biotechnology, GM is a key tool for boosting world food output. With more productive and drought and pest resistant varieties of staple crops like rice and wheat available, they argue that this could be the next step in feeding the world.
They point to the widespread use of GM in major producers like the U.S. and Brazil, which enters the food chain all over the world in the form of animal feed.
Yet in many parts of the world, governments remain highly skeptical of GM crops. In Europe, debate continues to rage on the topic; today, grain giant Monsanto will hear the results of a review by the European Court of Justice over a prohibition of its MON 810 corn, which has been approved in the European Union but was banned by France several years ago.
Higher food prices have put more pressure on EU lawmakers to relax rules on GM imports, as they did on traces in feed shipments earlier this year. In Portugal and Spain, sowings of GM crops have risen to a record high this year, according to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Mike Bushell, principal scientific advisor of agrochemicals giant Syngenta, who spoke on the panel of the same debate, agreed—despite the fact that one of the world’s largest grain traders, Bunge Ltd., has just banned a variety of the company’s GM corn on the basis it hasn’t been approved in China.
U.S.-based Cargill Inc, another giant of global agricultural markets, has also just announced it won’t accept the same variety, called Agrisure Viptera, at its North American milling plants until it is approved by the EU.
“The ironic thing is China has already got people all over the place cultivating [unapproved GM rice] illegally,” said Bushell.
Certainly in the broader debate on how to feed the world sustainably, GM cannot be put aside. In some of the world’s largest agricultural producers, including the U.S. and Brazil, such technology is widespread already.
But in Europe, public opinion remains firmly against GM crops and looks unlikely to shift any time soon. However, it’s important to remember that earlier incarnations of biotechnology, like hybrid seeds, took at least 30 years to become widely accepted in the U.S. and GM technologies have been around for far less time than that.