China defines success with GM crops

Bar graphs demonstrating the benefits of biotech with respect to pesticide poisonings in Chinese cotton farmers as well as production costs per kilo of cotton.

WITH A notable absence of controversy, Chinese biotechnologists had by early this year introduced some 120 genes into 50 plant species using gene technology (rather than conventional plant breeding).

According to an article in New Scientist, many of the crops targeted have been ignored by the big multinationals. And, says the report, while Western companies have so far concentrated on engineering crops to resist broad-spectrum, short-acting herbicides (thereby saving farmers the cost of specific in-crop herbicides), Chinese research has been targeting insect and disease resistance. The benefit is a steep reduction in the use of expensive and dangerous pesticides.

China has rice varieties in the field resistant to three major pest species and has been field-trialing GM wheat. Other commercial GM crops include cotton, tomatoes and sweet peppers. Potatoes, rapc, peanuts, cabbage, melons, maize, chillies. papaya and tobacco are under way.

New Scientist reports some 2 million Chinese cotton farmers now grow Bt cotton in fields covering 700,000 ha. Farmers' production costs have dropped by 28 per cent and income has gone up, while use of dangerous pesticides like organophosphates has dropped by 80 per cent.

However, concerns about developing insect resistance are as real here as elsewhere. With this level of plantings and so much at stake for small farmers, observers say China may be on the cutting edge of testing farming systems aimed at Sustainability of GM cotton and other crops.