Engineered Rice Cut Pesticides, Illnesses, Study Says

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
April 29, 2005

Chinese farmers growing genetically modified rice reduced pesticide use by 80 percent and saw pesticide-related health problems drop sharply, a new independent study reports. The genetically modified rice seed also boosted crop production by 6 to 9 percent.

No country has yet introduced a major, genetically modified (GM) food-grain crop—but the recent trials may signal a sea change. The tests are a final step before China decides on the commercial release of the GM rice.

"They've been doing this kind of research in China on a number of different GM products, like cotton. But this is the first one really focusing on human food, and it's of serious importance to China," said Martina Newell-McGloughlin, director of the University of California's Systemwide Biotechnology Research and Education Program.

China has invested the equivalent of hundreds of millions of U.S. dollars in biotech research and is outspent in the field only by the United States.

Two varieties of GM rice have been tested during years of regulatory trials. The tests in China measured food safety, growth effectiveness, and environmental impact. But the recent trials were the first to document the impact of genetically modified rice at the individual farm level.

"One of major reasons that commercialization has not proceeded is that there has been little independent evidence on whether GM food crops would really improve farmer income and rice productivity," said Jikun Huang, who led the study that appears today in Science.

Huang is both a professor and the director of the Center for Chinese Agricultural Policy at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing.

Fewer Pests, Better Health

Two rice strains were genetically altered to resist two insects, rice stem borers and leaf rollers, which sometimes require heavy use of pesticides to control.

Individual farmers in China cultivated the genetically modified rice crop on their own land. Subsidies enabled the farmers to purchase the GM seed at the same price as natural seed. But the farmers received no technical help during the crop cycle.

Farmers typically apply pesticides to combat rice stem borers and leaf rollers only if inspections show crops are infested. During the study farmers used smaller amounts pesticide because they saw less need. As a result, farmers' pesticide exposure dropped, and their health improved.

Pesticide exposure-related illness is a major problem in the agricultural communities of developing nations. Awareness and safety procedures lag far behind those in more developed economies. Manual labor is also more widespread, and, as a result, human-crop interactions occur much more closely and often.

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