November 22, 2005

Population Boom Pushes Asia to Accept GMO Rice

By Dolly Aglay

MANILA -- Opposition to genetically modified (GMO) rice in Asia is likely to dissipate in the next 5 to 7 years as the region struggles to feed its growing population, a senior scientist said.

Gurdev Singh Khush, a consultant at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), said opposition by environmental groups and the tedious regulatory process in getting approvals for GM crops have delayed the release of GM rice in the region.

But Khush said he expected GM rice to follow the path of GMO corn, which was eventually commercialized starting in the Philippines in 2002, despite protests by groups like Greenpeace.

"Similarly rice will also be approved someday," Khush, often referred to as one of the fathers of the 1960s green revolution for his work developing high-yielding rice varieties, told Reuters on the sidelines of a rice conference in Manila.

"It will be adopted particularly in Asia because there is a food security problem," he said. "My feeling is, in the next 5 to 7 years, this opposition will disappear."

Greenpeace and other groups have stepped up protests against the Philippine government's plan to push biotech crops, saying they threaten consumer health and the environment.

The Philippines is not the only nation whose plans have suffered setbacks. China is also facing hurdles and is unlikely to approve a transgenic variety of rice this year.

The opposition to GMO food crops is much stronger than for cotton and feed crops such as corn. Last year, Monsanto Co. dropped plans to introduce the world's first GMO wheat, after worldwide protests.


China, India and the Philippines are pushing research on a few varieties of GMO rice containing the BT gene, which is resistant to the corn borer pest, the leading destroyer of corn crops in Asia.

Khush said he expected BT rice to be commercialized in Asia in the next couple of years.

Other GMO rice -- one containing the Xa21 gene which is resistant to the bacterial blight pest and golden rice rich in Vitamin A -- are also being studied and may be released in the next several years, Khush said.

Iran claims to the first country to commercialize GMO rice in 2004 after nearly 10 years of risk assessment, including field trials.

Khush said he expected the number of rice consumers, now about 3 billion people, to rise by 1 billion by 2030. Nearly 70 of rice consumers live in Asia.

While about 90 percent of world rice output comes from Asia, it also consumes the same volume. But the region's population is growing at a rate of 1.6 to 1.7 percent each year, Khush said.

"With no new land to grow rice, where will this additional rice comes from unless we have the new technology for producing varieties which have more yields and more resistance to diseases and insects," he said.

"That is why biotechnology is going to be very important in producing enough food for Asians particularly."

Khush said that with better varieties, the average yield of rice per hectare in Asia could be increased to 4 tons from the present 3 tons. Biotechnology, he said, would also make rice more nutritious, such as the Vitamin A variety. > TAKE A LOOK-Reuters stories on GMO food