Published on: 09:16AM Aug 22, 2008
The Summer Olympic Games in Beijing have gripped people all over the globe. All Americans celebrated the swimming heroics of Michael Phelps. Here in Iowa, we are thrilled at the gold and three silvers won by 16-year old, personality-plus Shawn Johnson from West Des Moines. The country of Georgia applauded its judo wrestler as he defeated a foe from Russia, its neighboring nemesis. And if you blinked, you might have missed Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt break his own world record in the 100-meter dash.
For China, the Summer Olympics held a special significance. The world’s most populous country has viewed the games as a kind of coming-out party for itself. Developing nations don’t often get to host these events. The last time was forty years ago, in Mexico. China has wanted to prove that it could meet the enormous logistical challenge of building venues and coping with a massive rush of tourists.
China seeks nothing less than to demonstrate that it’s a fully modern nation.
We’ll see how it fares when all of the reviews are in. Meantime, there’s the question of what China will do next to prove itself. Signs suggest that it will soon make big waves in agriculture, by approving the widespread planting of genetically improved rice.
This would be a huge advance for food production around the world. If and when the Chinese take this step, we should cheer them as we do runners as they approach the finish line of a gold-medal race.
For years, China has allowed massive field trials of GM rice. Yet Beijing has resisted granting formal sanction to this promising crop, in part because it’s spooked by the potential reaction of consumers in other countries. Although Americans, Canadians, Brazilians, South Africans, and many others around the world have accepted the reality of biotech foods, there are some who continue to panic at the mere thought of them.
In the last month, both Japan and New Zealand have detected trace amounts of GM rice in rice shipments from China. Previously, China’s GM rice has turned up in Europe, where many people are downright hysterical about biotechnology.
Up to now, China has been sensitive to these concerns, even though any danger is utterly unfounded. Yet resistance to the benefits of biotech rice is a luxury that neither China nor the rest of the world can afford.
Food prices are just too high. As we cope with trying to feed more people, we simply must produce more food--and biotechnology offers one of the best solutions.
In July, agricultural officials in Beijing said that Chinese farmers must increase their crop yields by at least 1 percent each year in order to continue supplying a population that currently numbers about 1.3 billion people. One of the surest ways of doing this is to promote the adoption of GM rice that is better able to fight off pests and weeds than conventional varieties of rice.
Other countries are reaching similar conclusions. This year, South Korea has doubled the amount of GM corn it imports in an effort to fight rising food costs. Vietnam recently announced its full acceptance of GM crops.
Last week, Kenya jumped on the bandwagon. “I believe the way to get our nation out of poverty is to have the right technology in agriculture,” said William Ruto, Kenya’s agriculture minister.
For China, the Olympics have been a very big deal. A few months ago, a writer in the China Post said that they represented nothing less than “the rebirth of a country.”
That’s quite a claim to place on the shoulders of a sporting event, no matter how large or exciting. The closing ceremonies are Sunday night and soon these games will fade into our collective memory.
Meanwhile, people all over the planet will be hungry tomorrow. Many of them live in China. Countless others who depend upon rice as a staple food are elsewhere.
If China really wants the people of the world to see it in a new light, it should lead the way with a new technology. The Summer Olympics have thrilled us for the last couple of weeks--but GM rice can nourish us for years to come.
Dean Kleckner, an Iowa farmer, chairs Truth About Trade & Technology. www.truthabouttrade.org