Shan Juan/Jin Haixing
Authorities in China’s Hunan province denied recently that children in a rural school were guinea pigs in a United States research project on the effects of genetically modified rice.
A research paper involving 68 Chinese primary-school children in the province was published by the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition on Aug. 1, with Guangwen Tang at Tufts University in the US named as the lead author.
The unapproved experimental rice, widely referred to as “golden rice” and genetically engineered to produce provitamin A, was created by Ingo Potrykus at the Institute of Plant Sciences in the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology and Peter Beyer at the University of Freiburg more than 10 years ago.
Chen Peihou, deputy director of the Hunan Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, confirmed that the second author of the paper, listed as Hu Yuming, is a researcher for the centre.
“I was aware of the project in Hengyang in 2008, which involved children and was mainly testing for beta-carotene bioavailability and bioconversion to retinol,” or vitamin A, Chen said yesterday. “But as far as I know, no golden rice was used, and all the food involved was locally produced.”
He also said that Hu was not asked by the journal to sign the paper before its publication.
“In the project, we just provided the site and assistance to the Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and we have not dealt with any US institution,” he added.
According to Chen, Yin Shi’an, listed in the paper as the third author, is with the China CDC.
Wang Lin, information director of the China CDC, declined to comment.
Chen said his centre will continue its investigation and contact the journal about the issue.
Andrea Grossman, a public-relations officer for Tufts University’s Human Nutrition Research Centre on Aging, however, was quoted by Beijing Youth Daily over the weekend as saying that the month long research on golden rice was approved by authorities in both countries after an examination by ethics committees.
Feeding trials with human adults in China have also been carried out to measure the effect of fat in the diet, on bioconversion and bioavailability, according to the Golden Rice Project website, the official golden-rice homepage supported by the Rockefeller Foundation.
Last Thursday, Greenpeace, the international environmental campaign group, reported the study, backed by the US Department of Agriculture, which involved feeding golden rice to 6- to 8-year-old children in Hunan.
The study, assigned to the Hunan CDC by the China CDC in 2008, selected 68 primary-school children in a school in Hankou township of Hengyang city.
According to the Hunan CDC, the study was listed as on the Programme of National Natural Science Foundation of China.
After the discovery was posted on Sina Weibo, a Chinese micro-blogging website, the news received massive attention online.
After an investigation, the publicity department of Hengyang said over the weekend that there had been no such research project on golden rice. It said on its micro blog there was instead a study on the transformation of carotene in vegetables to vitamin A in children’s bodies.
According to Chen Peihou, all results were submitted to the China CDC immediately after the experiment ended, and no paper on that has been published within the country.
Worldwide, debates on long-term safety for genetically modified (GM) food continues.
In China, the Ministry of Agriculture in 2009 issued bio safety certificates to two strains of pest-resistant GM rice and corn in what was considered a major development in promoting the research and planting of GM crops.
The strains still need registration and production trial – which will take three to five years – before commercial planting could begin, according to the ministry.
The certificates triggered concern among the public and professionals since there is still no consensus on whether such food is harmful to humans.