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The Open Letter was presented by Alex Jack, president of Amberwaves, and Edward Esko, vice president, to the Embassy of the People’s Republic of China in Washington, D.C., on June 9, 2005 for delivery to the China Agricultural Ministry and the Agriculture Policy Research Center of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing. The Open Letter is co-sponsored by Californians for GE-Free Agriculture. The two organizations have about 100,000 members and supporters.
Open Letter to China on GM Rice
Rice, the most widely consumed food on the planet, has been a staple in the human diet from time immemorial. It is hulled, milled, or processed into dozens of products, making it the world’s most versatile crop. According to scientists, rice dates to Pangaea, the single landmass that broke into two giant continents. About 20 to 30 million years ago, northern and southern strains of rice evolved in Asia and Africa. New research has found that Asian rice, Oryza sativa, and North American wild rice, Zizania aquatica, are closely related, diverging from a common ancestor about 1 million years ago.
As the center of global rice cultivation for thousands of years, China has contributed immeasurably to human culture and development. Chinese rice spread to Southeast Asia, Korea, and Japan, along with arts and technology, providing unlimited benefits to East Asia. To the west, Chinese rice spread to the Middle East and North Africa. Transplanted to southern Europe in the Renaissance, it contributed to the rebirth of learning and a golden age of art in Florence, Milan, and other rice-growing regions of Italy. In more recent times, rice has crossed the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, becoming an agricultural staple in North and South America, contributing to the richness and diversity of life in the New World. While serving as American ambassador to France, Thomas Jefferson traveled to Italy to obtain rice seeds to send back to the Carolinas to replenish the rice supply that had been destroyed during the American Revolution.
Today rice is grown in over one hundred countries in nearly every climate and environment, from Alaska to Australia. Rice farming in the number one occupation in the world, sustaining more individuals and communities than any other crop or product. Across the globe, 3 billion people—half the world’s population—eat rice every day. It can truly be said to be the principal food on the planet, serving as the foundation of the world economy and contributing to the health and well being of the human family.
Rice cultivation has also benefited other forms of life. Rice fields are the world’s number one natural sanctuary for birds, animals, fish, amphibians, insects, and other forms of life. In rice fields from Yunnan to Kyushu, from the Camargue in France to the Sacramento Valley in California, hundreds of species of wildlife live in harmony, nurtured by nature’s bounty and in turn help to cross-pollinate, fertilize, and foster the growth and development of fields and forests, rivers and streams. In many ways, the earth is truly the rice planet.
The Promise and Threat of Genetic Modification
Introduced about a decade ago, genetically modified (GM) crops promise to increase yields, reduce the use of pesticides and other chemicals, improve nutrition, and contribute other benefits. Plants may also be engineered to produce medicinal effects that could help alleviate various diseases and disorders. Embraced by many governments, international agencies, corporations, and farmers, genetic engineering is an important new technology, and its potential benefits and risks need to be weighed carefully.
As the center of the spiral of human evolution for millions of years, the future of our species depends on preserving the natural quality of rice and other essential foods. Thorough scientific and medical studies need to be carried out before GM varieties are introduced. By definition, comprehensive testing involves years of study and research, including effects measured across generations. Still in its infancy, biotechnology has not existed long enough to adequately test the long-term effects on human beings and the environment, especially the effects on DNA and reproduction. In the long run, GM rice and other altered foods may prove to be harmless (or beneficial), but it is premature to make such a determination. As the British Medical Association warned, “Antibiotic resistance, the threat of new allergic reactions, and the unknown hazards of transgenic DNA mean that on health grounds alone the impact of genetically modified organisms must be fully assessed before they are released.”
Over the last decade, the benefits of new altered crops have been elusive. To date, none has improved the nutritional quality of plants or the human diet, and most studies indicate that rather than decreasing the use of pesticides GM crops have required more chemicals than conventional crops. Herbicide-resistant varieties have led to the rise of disease-resistant pests or superweeds that, as in the case of GM cotton, have wiped out entire harvests. Contamination of conventional and organic crops is also a major concern. Like other altered crops, GM rice may release engineered pollen, seed, pesticides, toxins, bacteria, viruses, or other organisms that can crossbreed with, or contaminate, ordinary 3 crops. In some cases, GM pollen has drifted miles, in other cases only meters. However, birds and animals can carry transgenic DNA hundreds and even thousands of miles. In the United States, the recent StarLink GM corn disaster was caused by careless storage, transport, and packaging from field to supermarket shelves. Millions of bushels of corn ultimately were contaminated, costing farmers and food companies billions of dollars. In Canada, the organic canola industry has been devastated by contamination from GM rapeseed. In England, the songbird population has declined sharply in regions where GM crops have been planted.
Despite the allure of biotechnology, world public opinion has turned decisively against GM foods and products. Europe has steadfastly opposed or limited their introduction. In the United States, the California Food and Agriculture Department rejected an application to produce pharmaceutical GM rice, and voters in several counties approved measures to prohibit its cultivation. Anheuser-Bush, the maker of Budweiser beer and the nation’s largest consumer of rice, announced that it was opposed to GM rice and has taken measures to prevent its spread. Chinese beer is also made with rice, and the introduction of GM varieties in China would inevitably result in a worldwide boycott and the probable decline in the sale of other goods and products.
The future of our species depends on the sustainability of our agriculture and the health of our environment. Rather than developing uniform seed varieties that are vulnerable to disease and pests, we should be fostering biodiversity that protects against catastrophe and provides enduring solutions to world hunger, malnutrition, and the growing toxicity of our environment.
Simple, safe natural methods are currently available to maintain and secure optimal human health, feed the hungry, boost yields, and conserve nature. Throughout the world, farmers and community projects have shown that sustainable agriculture methods are readily available. In China, farmers in Yunnan Province increased total yields by 89 percent and decreased rice blast, a fungal disease, by 94 percent by adopting a blend of rice varieties rather than just one type of seed. The experiment showed that multiculture could successfully be applied to growing rice and that harmful chemical sprays were not needed.
In Bangladesh, traditional cultivation methods of whole grain rice and the introduction of home gardens with vegetables and fruits high in vitamins have dramatically decreased vitamin A deficiency among several million people who adopted these methods. In Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, and other African countries, solar drying methods have been developed to conserve the nutrients in traditional crops for up to 6 months, preventing hunger and disease. In Madagascar, small rice farmers increased yields 4 to 5 times by developing new organic techniques of transplantation and irrigation. Known as the System of Rice Intensification (SRI), typical harvests of 2 tons per hectare increased to 8 to 10 tons per hectare without chemical fertilizers, pesticides, or expensive seed varieties.
As the Asian proverb puts it, “Rice is life.” The introduction of GM rice is abundant with promise and fraught with peril. In deciding which way to go, the voices of both ancestral wisdom and experience and the practical needs of posterity and a rapidly shrinking world must be carefully weighed. The prudent must be balanced with the practical, the traditional aligned with the modern, the innovative measured against the irreversible. The wisdom of the earth, including a respect for the natural rhythms of the birds and animals, the forests and fields, and the sea and sky, also must be heeded. We respectfully ask China to take a middle way in charting its future course. We call upon it to postpone the introduction and commercial release of GM rice at the present time, while continuing long-time comprehensive studies to see if this new technology holds up to its illustrious promise. At the same time, both traditional and innovative organic and sustainable methods should be introduced that will immediately yield positive, healthful results, be embraced by countries, markets, and consumers, and make China a shining example for the entire world.