Just what I want to hear out of China.
Safety fears as scientists play god
Weird and wonderful reports about mutant goats and rabbits are
trickling out of the press as Chinese scientists race to create
transgenic crops. In 1992, China became the first nation to grow
a genetically modified (GM) crop for commercial use when it
planted a tobacco plant engineered to resist viruses. Farmers in
the United States sowed their first GM crops only two years
later. Yet a lot of Chinese media reports sound similar to the
regular bulletins in the Mao era about the spectacular success of
Chinese scientists in growing grapes on persimmon trees, apples
on pear trees or crossbreeding pigs with rabbits.
The past year has seen Xinhua announce that Chinese scientists
have genetically engineered a strain of cotton using rabbit genes
so that the cotton fibres are "bright and soft" as rabbit fur.
Tests of the 30 plants reportedly show new fibres are also longer
and stronger, it says. Other scientists working in the Gobi
Desert have special seeds and techniques which have enabled them
to grow high-yield rice "on the boundless stretches of the
desert". Another Xinhua report celebrates the growth of a new
type of tomato plant 10 metres high at an experimental site
outside Beijing in Tongxian county. Unlike most tomato plants, it
can even start bearing fruit in February.
However, in Wuhan, they have been using transgenic technology to
produce tomatoes little bigger than ping-pong balls but these can
be kept on the shelf 10 times as long as ordinary kinds. These
are now on the market along with a new type of soybean altered by
the addition of genes taken from a poisonous spider to enable the
plant to defend itself against certain bugs. Work is under way to
create transgenic rice, cotton, corn and wheat plants, as well as
cabbages, which can better fight off pests.
This year has also seen some new animals being created, including
Tao Tao, China's first transgenic bull, who came into existence
at the Fengxin Animal Testing Farm in Shanghai. Researchers there
have taken a gene from a sheep and the aim is to eventually
create a cow that produces milk with albumin which is useful in
treating hepatitis A. Wong Yangnian, head of the China Society of
Bio-Engineering, claims that China has bred dozens of transgenic
animal and plant species and leads the world in creating
transgenic fish. China, he says, has 10,000 transgenic fish
Western experts think China is pushing ahead because researchers
operate under fewer restrictions. Controls are far tighter in
Europe and in the US, the world leader in developing transgenic
crops. "Attitudes to safety concerns are very different here," an
Indian genetic scientist says. "You can do what you like in the
laboratory," Professor Wong says. "Putting into fields is
different, of course." The Ministry of Agriculture has issued a
set of directives and set up a National Safety Management
Committee but there is little public pressure.
"It is hard to believe the kind of stuff they are doing here,"
says an American expert working in Beijing. "These are things I
haven't heard of being tried anywhere else." Some researchers in
Beijing have even tried introducing human milk genes into cow
embryos in the hope of breeding cows to produce milk similar to
that of nursing mothers. So far, though, the only commercial GM
crops sold in China on any scale are cotton seeds including those
developed by Monsanto. Corn may be next though and a subsidiary
of Du Pont, called Pioneer Hi-bred, opened a 10-hectare research
centre in Liaoning province last year to help open up what is
potentially the world's second-largest market.
-- =================================================== -| Hartmut Meyer -| Co-ordinator -| GENET -| The European NGO Network on Genetic Engineering -| -| Reinhaeuser Landstr. 51 -| D - 37083 Goettingen -| Germany -| -| phone: #49-551-7700027 -| fax : #49-551-7701672 -| email: firstname.lastname@example.org ===================================================
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