It’s not often that news about a scientific study is the top item on China’s main search engine. But for the last few days, headlines in the Chinese media have been screaming about an American university conducting experiments on Chinese children using genetically modified rice.
Genetically engineered foods are generally viewed with suspicion in China, and the idea that government officials would allow foreigners—and Americans at that—to experiment on Chinese children would be very bad PR for communist officials.
The controversy came to light after Greenpeace posted on its blog a strongly worded attack on the project, describing it as turning children into “guinea pigs.” The product tested was Golden Rice.
The experiments were part of a decadelong project involving a variety of international organizations to see whether the genetically modified rice would provide more vitamin A to children.
But they are both scientifically controversial and in China politically dangerous.
Perhaps sensing the explosive nature of the story, the Hengyang City administration in south-central China’s Hunan Province, where the experiments took place, responded immediately, denying that genetically modified rice was used in the study.
On Sept. 5, the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, a central state agency, also refuted the claim that genetically modified rice was used.
They made another statement later the same day saying that Shi-an Yin, a China-based researcher, was involved in the project, but said he did not know whether Golden Rice was used in the study.
This assertion conflicts with the language in the clinical trial registration and in the study itself, which refers explicitly to Golden Rice, which is genetically modified.
The rice was given to 24 children aged 6 to 8 at an elementary school in Hengyang from July 2008 to January 2009. The results of the study were published on Aug. 1, this year, in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (AJCN).
The AJCN study says that ethical review took place in both the United States and at the Zhejiang Academy of Medical Sciences in China. “Both parents and pupils consented to participate in the study,” it said.
Each child was given a 60-gram (2.1 ounce) serving of Golden Rice each day at lunch for 21 days, with the conclusion that Golden Rice is “as effective as pure beta-carotene in oil and better than that in spinach at providing vitamin A to children.”
Critics like Dave R. Schubert, an expert in cellular neurobiology at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, in California, say feeding genetically modified rice to children is unwise.
“We do not know if this product of genetic engineering can harm people, there has been no work to test its potential toxicity,” he wrote via email.
He indicates that it is possible that retinoids, which can be “exceptionally toxic” molecules, could be produced by the rice. “Since there has been no animal or human safety testing of the Golden Rice, I believe that it was exceptionally foolish to feed this Golden Rice to children,” he wrote.
The experiment was conducted in China, he surmised, “most likely because they could not pass the review process required for doing this type of clinical trial in the U.S.”
Children may be especially sensitive to potential health risks involved in GM rice. A report by the London-based Royal Society said that 6 to 8 percent of children have had food allergies, and an unknown allergen in GM food would pose the highest risk to children.
Dr. Guangwen Tang at Tufts University in Boston, the principal author of the study, and her co-author Gerard E. Dallal, also at Tufts, did not respond to emails or voice mail messages requesting comment.
Jennifer Kritz, a spokesperson at the University, forwarded a statement saying the university was “deeply concerned” about the matter.
“The purpose of the 2008 China trial was to test Golden Rice as part of the solution to a very serious health problem in developing countries—blindness of a quarter of a million children, and the deaths of half of them, caused by vitamin A deficiency.”
The statement did not provide further particulars on the research. It indicated that a “thorough review” was underway and that “it would be inappropriate to speculate further on the matter at this time.”
Chinese media and netizens were incensed primarily at Chinese officials for allowing the research to take place, and then denying that it had.
The Jinghua Times on Sept. 3 said, “The United States already admitted to using Hunan children for the experiment, but the Hunan government only said, ‘We have no direct association.’ If both are telling the truth, the only plausible explanation is that the experiment was carried out by an intermediary association.”
Commentators on the Chinese Greenpeace website said they thought the regime was trying to cover up the matter. “I feel that the experiment was conducted in secret. Genetically modified foods are still met with strong resistance in China; I don’t believe the parents had agreed to the experiment,” one user wrote.
China Daily, the regime’s primary media outlet for external propaganda, questioned the evasive response from regime officials. “Central authorities’ first and foremost priority should be to find out the truth and dispel the doubts people have about this matter,” it wrote in an editorial.
With research by Ye Qinqin.
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