Global consumption of rice, the staple food for over half of the world's population, continues to outpace production, heralding an imminent shortage in supplies.
In 2004/05 ending stocks are projected to plunge 16.1 million tons, with substantial declines expected in China, Thailand, and Vietnam, implying stronger prices throughout the 2004 and 2005 trade years.
While consumers in Europe continue to resist the introduction of GM foodstuffs into the food chain, scientists in the US claim that small and poor farm households can benefit from adopting GM rice.
China began doing research on genetically modified agricultural crops in the 1980s. Although it has cleared the commercial use of biotech cotton, the country with a 1.3 billion population has yet to develop GM food crops for the commercial market.
Scientists at Rutgers University and the University of California, Davis set out to conduct an economic analysis of data from eight rice pre-commercialisation field trials in China.
They studied data from field trials involving two GM rice strains: the Xianyou 63, created to be resistant to rice stem borer and leaf roller through insertion of a Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) gene, and the Youming 86 variety, which is insect-resistant due to a resistance gene from the cowpea plant. Both varieties have been in pre-production field trials since 2001.
The study compared farms planting conventional and GM rice over two years. In 2002, 40 farmers grew one of the GM varieties and 37 sowed conventional crops; the following year 69 farmers planted GM and 32 a non-GM equivalent.
Use of the GM rice enabled the farmers to reduce pesticide use by 15 pounds per acre, an 80 per cent reduction when compared with pesticide use by farmers using conventional rice varieties, conclude the researchers.
They also claim the survey data showed there was a difference in yields between GM and non-genetically modified rice varieties. Yields of the genetically modified Xianyou 63 variety were 9 per cent higher than those of conventional rice varieties. Yields of the GM Youming 86 were not significantly different from those of conventional varieties.
In addition, the researchers suggest GM rice could be better for the health.
The scientists asked farm family members if they experienced any headaches, nausea, skin irritation, digestive discomfort or other health problems during or after spraying pesticides on their farms.
"The survey indicated that none of the farmers who had completely planted their farms to genetically modified insect-resistant rice varieties reported experiencing adverse health effects from pesticide use in either 2002 or 2003," say the researchers.
Time will tell if the Chinese government opts to clear GM rice for consumers but findings from the recent field trials could certainly clear the way for the commercialisation of this biotech crop in the world's largest market.
Full findings were published on 29 April in Science.