While the debate over agricultural biotechnology still rages in many parts of the world, China is moving forward at a rapid pace in developing genetically modified rice, according to a Stanford University professor who is an expert on the agriculture of the world's most populous nation.

Scott Rozelle, senior fellow, Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, Stanford University, Stanford, Calif., spoke to 325 rice researchers, Extension personnel, farmers, and others at the 32nd Rice Technical Working Group (RTWG) meeting in San Diego, Calif.

China's milled rice totaled 139.5 million metric tons this season, representing 30 percent of the world's production. By comparison, U.S. milled production stood at about 6.3 million metric tons.

Rozelle has visited Chinese rice research labs, met with Chinese rice growers, and of late studied China's efforts to develop genetically modified (GM) rice.

“In the last 10 years, China has probably been the healthiest agricultural economy in the world in total factor productivity growth,” Rozelle said. “From 1985-1995, China squeezed 2 percent more productivity per year out of its food system, faster than the country's population growth; productivity has risen at a rate of more than 3 percent since 1995.”

Twenty-five percent of Chinese rice production is Japonica short-medium grain and 75 percent is Indica long grain. Chinese consumption of Indica rice has fallen 20 percent in the last decade — a trend Rozelle called “unprecedented.” Japonica demand has more than doubled in the same time frame.

“The bottom has fallen out of the Indica demand side of the equation, mainly as incomes have risen and diets have changed. This hasn't happened in Japonica,” Rozelle said.

Japonica demand is increasing in three geographic areas: in the country's northern areas where incomes have increased rapidly over the past decade; in the Yangtze River Delta — home to 100 million of China's wealthiest residents; and by nearly 100 million rural migrants who previously ate wheat products, but have moved to cities seeking new jobs and now prefer rice.

“I think there is an opportunity — given taste and preference — for higher quality Japonica and other goods from the United States to be sold in China,” Rozelle said.

In the last five years, China's financial investment in its agriculture has been staggering — an increase from 0.5 percent of the agricultural gross domestic market to a full 1 percent.

“At a time when the rest of the world is decreasing agricultural spending, China has doubled its investment into agricultural research and development,” Rozelle said. Many of the dollars are earmarked for biotechnology. “They clearly are considering putting their eggs in the biotech basket.”

China had no ag biotech industry in 1986. It totaled $100 million in 1999, and ballooned to $300 million in 2003. Rozelle said this is more than all the dollars invested in biotech by the developing world combined. China is also outspending the U.S. government on biotechnology. China's investment in biotechnology could reach more than $20 billion over the next two decades.

The biggest breakthrough in biotech in the world so far is Bt cotton, Rozelle said. China has about six million hectares of the lepidopterous-resistant cotton. China sent shockwaves throughout the world from 2002-2004 with its announced intentions to commercially develop GM rice, the staple food for more than 50 percent of the world's population.

In China, Rozelle helped analyze GM rice data at three sites. Overall, GM rice showed positive yield increases in some years but not others. However, this is not the primary reason China is developing GM rice.

“The largest benefit was the reduction in pesticide use mainly for the rice stem borer. Of the farmers that used GM rice, 62 percent didn't apply any pesticides on GM plots,” Rozelle said. “Not only did farmers reduce pesticide use and generate some higher yields, the seed was given to them for free. GM rice gave growers a 30 percent net increase in income.”

In 2002, some of the top leaders in China planned to approve the commercialization of GM rice but another leader with interests in foreign trade raised a red flag. “The concern was if GM rice is extended, China's trade prospects could be destroyed if no one imported GM rice. They put the brakes on it,” Rozelle said.