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Bt Rice in China

Reuters has a story up, based on anonymous sources, that China has just approved a government developed strain of bt rice*. Bt crops express a protein isolated from Bacillus thuringiensis a bacteria used by organic farmers to control insects. The introduction of bt crops (primarily corn and cotton) has lead to substantial reductions in the use of insecticides. China plants more than 100,000 square miles of land with rice each year, so the environmental and economic** impact of being able to reduce insecticide applications would be substantial.

China is also in a unique position when it comes to commercializing any form of genetically engineered rice, as the world’s largest producer of rice, but only a small next exporter*** China stands to benefit from any improvements to rice, and is largely immune to pressure from food importing countries such as the members of the European Union. China has also invested (and continues to invest) billions of dollars in developing their own, publicly-funded, domestic crop research and breeding which has kept their per acre crop yields trending upwards, and now means they’re prepared to make the leap to genetically engineered food crops (they’ve had bt cotton for some time) with home-grown technology, killing any narrative about this being western tech foisted off on the developing world.

Whatever bad things you can say about the current government in China (and there definitely are bad things to say), it’s at least clear they’re pulling out all the stops to make sure their people stay fed, but today and in decades to come. Clearly it’s in their own self interest to do so.

When the people are hungry, governments have a way of falling often with bad consequences to those formerly in power (see: The French Revolution). Plenty of societies throughout history have seen problems on the scale of those China will face (feeding a population of 1.3 billion that continues to grow) coming have closed their eyes rather than do everything they can do develop solutions before it was too late.

We’ll have to wait and see if this story is confirmed before much more can be said.

*Even if the routers story pans out, and that’s not assured in a story based solely on anonymous sources, the bt rice is still a couple of years away from large scale planting.

**Since this strain was developed by the government, which I assume isn’t developing genetically engineer traits for a profit, the cost of farmers of buying the new seeds may be quite low. China is also one of the countries that is already producing and using a hybrid rice seed and as a result China farmers are already using purchased seeds.

***China’s rice exports are expected to keep shrinking as demand for rice grows along with the growth of their population.

4 Comments

  1. Greg says:

    As anyone in plant bio knows China is a rising powerhouse of plant research. Just look at how they cranked out the cucumber ‘genome’. All governments need to be proactive in this area, especially given the amount of time it takes to develop these things.

    I also think that Bt is really a great success story for GM. My only fear is that if every crop everyone grows is Bt there is going to be a very large pressure for resistant bugs. I really think that we need a few other gm insecticide systems that you could rotate, just like you rotate through crops. Which = more plant research. Funny how that works. I know there are already a few headed down the Monsanto pipeline Vt for example.

    1. James says:

      I haven’t heard about vt, but I’m glad to hear there are some alternatives in the pipeline. Can you share any more details? I completely agree using one resistance system isn’t sustainable over the long term. Having dozens of different bt proteins is better than a single one, but things with absolutely different modes of action would be far better.

      1. Greg says:

        Its been a while since the last time I read up on this , but its another transgene that will be (is?) available soon. Sounds like its very similar to Bt, but ‘improved’. Probably one of the many Bt homologs. It also has a stronger promoter.

        1. James says:

          Cool! I’ll keep my ear to the ground for any further news of VT.

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