By Choi Sung-jin
Public opinion is divided into pros and cons over the government's all-out efforts to develop genetically modified rice varieties when the overproduction of the staple grain has long emerged as a national problem.
Government officials are stressing the need to develop rice strains as varied as possible to prepare for climate change and other situations, while civic groups and other critics say there is no need for haste, particularly because the safety of genetically modified vice has not been ensured.
According to the Rural Development Administration (RDA) and other institutions, out of the 146 genetically modified organisms (GMO)-related research programs under way, 71 projects are on rice, indicating how the government's GMO research focuses on rice. The government has invested 50.4 billion won ($45.2 million) into GMO research since 2011, and more than half of it in rice, too.
Government officials said the aim was to develop gene-engineered rice varieties that could overcome adverse conditions such as harmful insects, drought and high temperatures.
Particularly, two of the 71 research projects are in the fourth and fifth stages of assessing and screening risks just before their commercialization and nine s are in the phase of fixed line breeding _ making them express the same traits in a steady manner _ one stage before testing risks. Seen from only a technical viewpoint, Korea is on the brink of commercializing gene-altered rice, the officials say.
"We should be armed with weapons to prepare for all kinds of uncertainty in the future, including a situation when Korea cannot cultivate rice because of climate change," said RDA administrator Chung Hwang-keun.
Unlike the traditional system that crossbreeds two individual varieties with different genes, genetically modified breeding puts specific genes into plants to make them endure under certain circumstances far better than before. Already 22 genetically engineered rice varieties in 13 countries have won approval for risk screening, indicating how common such research is across the world. Particularly, the Chinese government is spearheading the development of rice strains.
"It takes more than a decade to develop one genetically modified rice strain," said an RDA official. "To keep Korea from being subordinated to rival nations and global corporations technologically, the nation should secure technology concerning genetically modified rice." The government is just preparing for the future and has no plans yet to cultivate the rice generally, he added.
Critics also admit the need to a certain extent, but remain skeptical whether the government should be in such a hurry. With hundreds of thousands of tons of surplus rice causing clashes between farmers and policymakers every year over bolstering its price, hasty attempts might result in various adverse effects, opposing experts said.
"Scientists said glyphosate components used in some herbicides were less harmful than caffeine in coffee about two decades ago but are now classifying them as harmful material," said Professor Lim Hak-tae of Gangwon National University. "Scientific verification concerning the safety of genetically modified rice should precede further research."
Some are concerned actual cultivation of gene-engineered rice could lead to the disappearance of indigenous rice strains, because the seeds of genetically modified rice can be spread to nearby paddies by birds and wind, contaminating other breeds genetically. Others worry about a vicious cycle in which genetically engineered breeds that are resistant to vermin and herbicides lead to the appearance of superbugs that are immune to GMO rice.
"We should develop new breeds that suit Korea's land and climate with natural methods, not by the artificial manipulation of genes," said Kwak Geum-sun, who heads a cooperative of agricultural consumers. "Only then will we be able to do farming in safe and sustainable ways."