Unlicensed GM rice sold illegally on the internet to Chinese farmers has been sold for human consumption and may have been imported undetected into the UK, even though it could cause allergic reactions.
The Chinese authorities are investigating after 11 samples of rice in Hubei province were found to contain BT rice, a transgenic strain that has not been approved for commercial growing and should not be in human food.
The UK is one of a number of EU countries that imports rice from China. Although the amount of GM rice involved is thought to be only a small percentage of the total grown – about 1,200 tonnes – no one knows precisely, or where it went. Since no GM rice is grown legally anywhere in the world, importers would not have checked if any had entered British food supplies.
The GM rice was discovered after Greenpeace China investigated offers on the internet to farmers of GM rice that would kill larvae which bore into the stalks of the crop, seriously damaging yields. The rice has not been tested for human consumption, but it caused an allergic reaction in mice when fed to them.
Apart from a potential risk to human health, the poison genetically engineered into the plant could also kill non-target species such as butterflies and moths. Insects which are or become resistant to the introduced toxin may evolve and require more intensive chemical control. There are also fears that the rice could contaminate natural genetic resources and affect long-term soil health.
For China it is also an economic risk, because importer countries such as Japan and Korea have consumers who reject GM foods.
A similar GM contamination case in the US in 2000 resulted in a $1bn (£530m) product recall, amid concerns of potential allergenic reactions after illegal, genetically engineered corn called StarLink entered the food chain.
Although StarLink was grown on less than 1% of all US cornfields, it was mingled with much larger quantities of corn. It resulted in the recall of nearly 300 contaminated food product lines.
The Chinese rice contamination was discovered when researchers followed up the internet sales and collected samples of rice from millers and merchants. Testing by the Genescan international laboratory found that 11 samples were contaminated, and two contained toxins which were known to cause an allergic reaction in mice.
Sarah North, the GM campaigner for Greenpeace, said: “This dodgy rice could have serious consequences for human health and the environment and it could already be on UK supermarket shelves. This is just another sorry example of how the GM industry is out of control.”
The discovery of the GM rice followed a scandal last month over unlicensed GM maize entering the food chain as a result of a mix-up between two types of GM seed – one called BT10, which was unlicensed, and the second BT11, which could be grown commercially. For three years BT10 was grown and mixed with BT11 before anyone realised.
Yesterday, three weeks after being told of the error by the US authorities, the European commission was still unsure how many member countries had unwittingly imported about 1,000 tonnes of the contaminated maize. It has demanded that all maize imports should be certified as free of contamination – something which is almost impossible to achieve – but many think that is not enough.
The UK Green member of the European assembly’s environment committee, Caroline Lucas, condemned the decision to continue importing US corn at all.
“This incident casts serious doubt on the EU’s ability to monitor GM ingredients in the food chain. The only way to ensure unauthorised GM corn doesn’t enter the food chain is to halt all US corn imports until the contaminated corn has been identified, recalled and returned to the US.”
David Cuming, of Consumers International, said: “The release of untested GMOs into the environment and the food chain is unacceptable, undermining consumer rights to safety, to a healthy and sustainable environment and to information. People need to know that their food is safe.”
The organisation, which represents 250 groups in 115 countries, wants labelling to enable GMs to be traced, the establishment of GM-free areas and independent safety testing.
Mr Cuming said the rice and maize discoveries raised questions about the integrity of the companies and individuals involved in genetically-engineered food. “It also reveals weakness in regulation systems. Strict safety guidelines and independent testing need to be implemented and we also need strict rules to prevent such contamination from occurring,” he said. The Guardian