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Activists Go on Warpath Against Transgenic Crops—and Scientists

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Science  25 Feb 2011:
Vol. 331, Issue 6020, pp. 1000-1001
DOI: 10.1126/science.331.6020.1000
In the crosshairs.

Anti-GM activists are stepping up their campaign against geneticist Zhang Qifa, a pioneer in developing transgenic rice varieties in China.

CREDIT: COURTESY ZHANG QIFA

BEIJING—Events took an ominous turn soon after the host invited questions from the audience. At the podium, geneticist Zhang Qifa had just delivered a lecture at China Agricultural University here last November on the functional rice genome and boosting crop yields. A pioneer in developing and testing genetically modified (GM) varieties of rice in China, Zhang leads scores of researchers and students in his rice genomics and biotechnology laboratory at Huazhong Agricultural University in Wuhan. His achievements have made him a scientific superstar in China—and to a band of anti-GM activists, Public Enemy Number One.

After Zhang deflected the first question, a young man in an orange jacket sprang to his feet. Reciting from a piece of paper, he peppered Zhang with questions about GM crop safety and whether scientists have illegally distributed transgenic seeds to farmers. Zhang and the host declined to answer, promising that a public forum would address such concerns. A woman then blurted out, “Zhang Qifa is a traitor!” and accused him of using 1.3 billion Chinese as lab mice. Next, an older man approached the podium, picked up a ceramic tea mug from the front row, and hurled it, missing Zhang.

“It was a dangerous situation,” says geneticist Yan Jianbing, who works in China for the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center of El Batán, Mexico. Several professors hustled Zhang out of the room while Yan called the police. By the time they arrived, the provocateurs had left.

Ever since the Chinese government awarded safety certificates in November 2009 to two GM rice varieties and a variety of GM maize, Zhang and other researchers have come under increasing fire. The anti-GM backlash in China is driven in part by Greenpeace and scientists who are raising long-standing concerns about possible ecological and health effects of transgenic crops. But one organization is turning up the heat and making researchers like Zhang duck for cover: Wu You Zhi Xiang, a loose-knit group known in English as Utopia.

In the past year, Utopia activists and sympathizers have disrupted several scientific meetings; Yan and others suspect they were behind the incident at China Agricultural University as well. Things could get hotter still. Utopia, which considers itself the standard-bearer of the Chinese “New Left” and espouses nationalist sentiments, is gathering signatures on an open letter denouncing GM crops. The letter alleges that China is being exploited by agribusinesses such as Monsanto and calls for the revocation of the safety certificates for GM rice. It plans to submit the missive to the National People's Congress, an annual conclave starting 5 March that will help steer the government's work plan for the coming year.

Few observers expect Utopia's petition to sway the Chinese government, which has enshrined transgenic crop R&D as a top priority. And Utopia's agitation so far appears to have had little influence on public opinion: In a poll in several Chinese cities last summer led by Huang Jikun, director of the Center for Chinese Agricultural Policy of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) here, 61% of respondents viewed GM rice favorably, only a slight downtick from recent years. But Utopia's actions may well slow commercialization of GM foods. Zhang's team and independent labs spent 15 years testing the safety of GM rice. Now he believes it could be another decade or more before GM rice is approved for commercial planting—assuming the safety certificates are renewed.

Scientists and officials acknowledge they were blindsided by Utopia's heated attacks. “The government never expected the public would be so anti-GM,” says Lin Min, director of the Biotechnology Research Institute of the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences (CAAS) here. According to a rough tally by Science, in the past several months at least 10,000 critiques of GM rice—some substantive, many without merit—have been posted on popular blogging sites in China.

Science in China is closely aligned with state ideology and power, says an academic here who belongs to Scientific Culturati, an unabashedly antiscience group of Chinese scholars. By opposing GM crops, he argues, Utopia and its allies see themselves as standing up to corruption and special interests.

Due diligence?

China plunged into GM crops in the late 1990s, when it allowed commercial planting of four transgenic species: cotton, petunia, tomato, and sweet pepper. Since then, the government has moved cautiously, granting two further approvals, for GM poplar trees and papaya. Just one of the six—insect-resistant cotton—is now planted widely.

Prospects for GM crops brightened in 2008, when the government rolled out a $3.5 billion initiative to spur commercialization. Top leaders have publicly backed the effort. In 2008, Premier Wen Jiabao told Science that in light of food shortages that had flared up that year, “I strongly advocate making great efforts to pursue transgenic engineering” (Science, 17 October 2008, p. 362).

Several trends make a compelling case for adoption of GM crops, advocates say. In the past 15 years, rice yields have stagnated even as use of pesticides and fertilizers has risen sharply. The chemical blitz has hardly deterred rice pests, says Wu Kongming of CAAS's Institute of Plant Protection here. “The situation is becoming more serious,” he says. Meanwhile, drought and development are eating away at yields of wheat and other crops.

GM rice seemed primed to usher in China's brave new transgenic world. The two varieties that passed safety inspection express a gene for a protein from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) that's toxic to insects. Iran and the United States have already approved commercial planting of GM rice, but Chinese regulators have been extremely cautious about tinkering with the country's most important grain. “China has been stricter with GM rice than any other country on any GM crop,” says Huang Dafang, former director of CAAS's Biotechnology Research Institute.

Since 1997, when Zhang unveiled his team's Bt rice, the agriculture ministry's GM safety committee has examined data on everything from gene flow in the environment to the effects of Bt rice on nontarget organisms. To date, the panel “has found no obvious difference between GM rice and traditional rice,” says Wu, a committee member. He and other scientists acknowledge that no technology is foolproof and that the long-term effects of GM crops remain an open question. “Nothing is totally good or totally bad,” Wu says. But the two certified Bt rice varieties “are just as safe as non-GM rice,” he says.

Huang Dafang

CREDIT: COURTESY HUANG DAFANG

Lu Bao-Rong, chair of the department of ecology and evolutionary biology at Fudan University in Shanghai, puts it another way. “Growing traditional rice requires a lot of chemical pesticides. Is that safe?” he asks, before citing a Chinese proverb: “With two possible benefits, take the bigger one. With two possible harms, take the lesser one.”

Critics reject that philosophy. The government “was too quick” to give Bt rice safety approval, says Liu Bing, a science policy expert here at Tsinghua University who is spearheading a petition—separate from Utopia's—that seeks to repeal the certificates. Unlike Utopia, Liu speaks in measured tones. “GM research is necessary,” he says. But if GM rice is widely planted—and it later emerges that it's harmful, he says, “it will be too late. Nobody will be able to avoid the risk.”

Liu Bing

CREDIT: LIU HUAJIE

Ecological risks should not be underestimated either, says Wei Wei, an ecologist here at CAS's Institute of Botany. Wei notes one unforeseen effect of Bt cotton in China: As the target pest, bollworms, faded as a threat, mirid bugs and other secondary pests became headaches. Nudging the argument onto shakier ground, Greenpeace asserts that some GM rice strains in China fall under foreign patents and planting them could drive up the cost of seeds. “It would pose a potential risk for China's food safety and sovereignty,” says Fang Lifeng of Greenpeace's Beijing office.

Chinese scientists on both sides of the issue say they welcome serious debate and generally treat adversaries with respect. Utopia, meanwhile, has gone on the warpath.

Utopian worldview

Founded in 2003, Utopia has since attracted a number of high-profile devotees, including Marxist scholars and retired government officials. The group does not hide its contempt for GM crops: Its Web site (www.wyzxsx.com) posts articles and essays by people who feel that their voices are ignored by China's official media. Although the government places great faith in science, many articles complain about how China is blindly embracing technology as a solution to the country's ills. The Utopia letter demanding revocation of the GM rice safety certificates also calls for the formation of a new oversight body to replace the agriculture ministry's GM safety panel, which the letter says does not represent all stakeholders.

Utopia and other groups are critical of what they see as flawed safety tests, especially one in which mice were fed Bt toxin. “That's not something people are going to eat,” says Gu Xiulin, an influential economist with Yunnan University of Finance and Economics in Kunming. For that reason, says Gu, whose essays have been posted on Utopia's Web site, Zhang and other GM researchers “are cheating the whole country.” Other Utopians cast themselves as Maoists defending China's disenfranchised rural poor and urban downtrodden. They often couch objections to GM crops in moral and nationalistic terms. Much of the rhetoric, grouses Yan, “doesn't have any scientific sense.”

In part to counter Utopia's virulent strain of activism, the Chinese government has sought to boost outreach on transgenic crop R&D. The agriculture ministry has set aside several hundred thousand U.S. dollars for that purpose this year and plans to allot another $1.5 million for risk evaluation and public engagement in the 5-year plan to begin in 2012, sources say. Scientists contend that the money disbursed so far has been spent ineffectually and that a more energetic outreach effort is needed.

If such a campaign were to gain traction, it could help take heat off Zhang. He's assailed wherever he lectures and receives vituperative e-mails almost daily. He admits that “it would be a pity” if his Bt rice failed to reach the market. But he's taking the long view. “My heart is quiet,” says Zhang. His ultimate goal is to create “green super rice”: an ideal variety that has high yields, needs less pesticides and fertilizers, resists drought, is packed with nutrients, and tastes great. Even Utopia must see the irony in the utopian nature of Zhang's hopes.

  • * With reporting by Hao Xin and Li Jiao.

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