HONG KONG - China, the world's top rice producer and consumer, is unlikely to give its nod for commercial production of genetically modified rice at least until next year with a government panel demanding more data to prove its safety.
Scientists in China said the biosafety committee -- which examines the safety of genetically modified crops for the government -- fell short of supporting large scale production of insect resistant Bt rice at its bi-annual meeting late in June.
Instead, the panel has recommended transgenic papaya, which could become the first GMO crop in seven years to pass Beijing's scrutiny for commercialisation.
"There has been no agreement on any commercialisation of rice," said Lu Baorong of Shanghai's Fudan University, who is a member of the committee. "The requirements are getting harder."
Early in 2005 China looked set to approve commercial production of a disease resistant GMO rice, known as Xa21 rice, paving the way for the world's first large scale planting of a GMO crop for direct human consumption.
But Beijing has hit the brakes following reports of illegal sales of GMO rice in China. The reports sounded alarm bells also in China's top trading partners.
While more and more farmers around the world have shifted to GMO varieties in the past 10 years, cotton, corn, soybeans and rapeseed account for almost all of the transgenic crops currently grown commercially.
"It is still far from commercialisation," said Dayuan Xue, a professor from the Nanjing Institute of Environmental Sciences, referring to transgenic rice. "It's not possible this year. Maybe they may consider it next year."
The Chinese scientists said it would take a year or two to collect data which the committee had now asked for to decide if Bt rice was safe for the environment and human consumption.
Even then, the government in China might not go ahead immediately, especially if uncertainties remain about whether its trading partners would accept the biotech crop, they said.
For the same reasons, U.S. farmers have so far refrained from planting herbicide resistant GMO rice, known as Liberty Link rice, for which Washington has given already the green light.
"The government takes different aspects into account, not just the biosafety data," said another scientist member of the committee, who declined to be indentified.
"They also have to consider political, economic and trade matters. It is a complicated issue."
PAPAYA, PEST MUTATION
But the committee saw no safety problems for production of genetically modified papaya, resistant to ring spot virus that often causes devastation in China as well as other producing countries, as Thailand.
"They feel that it is relatively safe at this moment," Lu said, adding Beijing might approve its commercialisation late this year or in early 2007.
The scientists said that GMO papaya, developed in the southern province of Guangdong, used a different technology from the variety developed and released in Hawaii since 1998.
Looking to the future of GMO rice in China, Angus Lam from Greenpeace said chances of Beijing approving the crop would rise if the European Union allowed imports of Liberty Link rice.
This would send a signal on the acceptability of transgenic rice in Europe.
"The decision will be made in a global context. Local scandals might be only a part of the consideration," he said, referring to illegal sales of Bt rice, which Greenpeace has said found its way into baby food manufactured in China.
The scientists said one of the biggest concerns for the biosafety committee was possible mutation of pests to develop resistance to the Bt toxin, originally derived from bacteria.
China is already the world's top grower of Bt cotton, which it introduced in 1997. About 70 percent of its 2006 cotton acreage is estimated to be of the transgenic variety.
"So far, we have not found insects developing resistance," said the scientist who did not want to be identified. "But we have to monitor this carefully in future. The biosafety committee is seriously concerned about this problem."