BEIJING — The debate in China over expanding the use of genetically modified crops has reached a stalemate. Analysts say that despite efforts by prominent scientists to expand the commercialization of GM crops, proponents face a public that deeply mistrusts government management of food safety and is suspicious of the science behind GMO products.
Over the last three decades, China has lifted millions out of poverty as the heavily populated country has risen to become the second largest economy in the world. Its appetite for food has grown as well. So much so that China now relies heavily on imported foods and grains, and some here feel that GM foods should be allowed to play a more significant role.
GMO supporter Li Ning is the director of the State Key Laboratories for AgroBiotechnolgy at China Agricultural University. He says that although biotechnology would help improve agricultural efficiency, scientists need to overcome resistance from the public.
“People in China are so scared about food safety issues, that as soon as someone reports negatively on GMO foods they start to be afraid,” said Li.
As an example, he mentions an official from the Heilongjiang Soybeans Association who told the media that consuming genetically modified soybeans had carcinogenic risks. Experts were quick to rebuke the official’s remarks, but Li says people believed the wrongful claims.
The genetic makeup of GMO food is modified at the seed level to make crops more resistant to diseases and pest attacks. Currently, China allows the commercial production of GMO tomatoes, cotton, papaya and bell peppers.
The ministry of agriculture has repeatedly stated that GMO crops are safe, and the ministry of technology has invested hundreds of million of dollars into the biotech industry.
Delay in commercialization
Nonetheless, safety certificates for GMO rice and corn granted in 2009 will expire next year, and commercialization has not been approved yet. Li Ning says that the delay is a result of intense pressure from environmental groups like Greenpeace.
“They have organized people to stage sit-ins in front of the Ministry of Agriculture,” said Li. “This has made officials at the ministry very scared; some of them do not dare take a stance against such demonstrations.”
Ronald Herring, a professor of Political Science at Cornell University, says that there is no obviously safe place for politicians on this issue.
“I think the reversals on dams on environmental grounds have introduced some caution about the externalities of growth at any cost,” he said.
“Of course, there is no evidence whatsoever of environmental or food safety risk from transgenics,” said Herring, “but in 55 languages the common folk wisdom is: where there is smoke there is fire.”
Earlier this year, scientists from the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the Chinese Academy of Engineering signed a petition letter to push for the commercialization of GM rice.
In a recent interview with the Southern Daily, Zhang Qifa, one of the academics that signed the petition, said that this is the best time for China to implement a national industrialization of GM rice.
“The technology we have is as good as that of the U.S.,” Zhang was quoted saying. “However, we lack the commercial infrastructure. We must nurture strong agricultural companies to promote GMO rice industrialization.”
The large-scale commercialization of GMO crops has been seen as a strategic move to help China solve the problems arising from needing to feed an increasing population while the availability of arable land decreases.
Yan Jianbing, a professor at the National Key Laboratory of Crop Genetic Improvement at Huazhong Agricultural University, in Wuhan, has been involved with tasting sessions of GM rice in Wuhan.
At one of the events last month, volunteers tasted rice cakes and porridge made with GM rice and promoted the event to reassure the public about the safety of transgenic crop.
“We are at a moment where if we use genetic technology then we will be able to [have an] impact on the future development of crops in China and guarantee food security in our country,” said Yan.
Biotech companies taking over China
Last week Li Jiayang, China's deputy minister of agriculture, was criticized in the media for having been a consultant for DuPont, which advocates GM foods and is financially invested in China's biotechnology market. Part of the criticism stemmed from the fact that party rules forbid senior officials from taking posts in foreign companies, but much emphasis was also put on Li’s advocacy of transgenic crop for China’s agriculture.
Scientists like Li, a commentary on the China Youth Daily suggested, are pushing biotechnologies in China for their personal gain, while helping multinational corporations grasp sizable economic interests within China. A similar argument was made in August by a major general of the People’ s Liberation Army, who argued that the West was threatening food security in China by introducing GMO grains through imports.
Currently, China permits the importation of GMO corn, soybean, canola and cotton, but only for non-human consumption.
However, an estimated 80 percent of soybeans consumed in China are imported from the United States, Brazil and Argentina, and most of them are genetically modified. In the first half of 2013, seven additional types of GMO crops were given the green light for imports.
Farmers have criticized the government's choice to increase GMO imports, which are often cheaper and of better quality than the local produce. China is not alone in struggling with this issue.
The European Union is fiercely negotiating a trade agreement with the United States on GMO trade. The deal is expected to be finalized by the end of 2014 and might eventually allow U.S. GMO foodstuffs to enter the European market.