GENET archive


CONSUMERS & POLICY: China: Genetically modified food fight

                                  PART 1

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SOURCE:  The Economist



DATE:    13.12.2013

SUMMARY: "Of the many thousands of usually small protests that break out in China every year, few relate to national policy. Many consider the risk of challenging the central government too great. But the entrance to the agriculture ministry is a gathering spot for occasional demonstrations. "

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Of the many thousands of usually small protests that break out in China every year, few relate to national policy. Many consider the risk of challenging the central government too great. But the entrance to the agriculture ministry is a gathering spot for occasional demonstrations. Their complaints are about an issue dear to the ministry: genetically modified (GM) crops. At one protest this year, a group chanted slogans calling for the eradication of ?traitors? who support GM food. Debate over the technology is escalating, putting the government in a bind.

Public unease about genetic modification is common around the world. In China, alongside rising concerns about food safety, it has taken on a strongly political hue. Chinese anti-GM activists often describe their cause as patriotic, aimed not just at avoiding what they regard as the potential harm of tinkering with nature, but at resisting control of China?s food supply by America through American-owned biotech companies and their superior technology. Conspiracy theories about supposed American plots to use dodgy GM food to weaken China abound online.

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They are even believed by some in the government. In October an official video made for army officers was leaked on the internet and widely watched until censors scrubbed it. ?America is mobilising its strategic resources to promote GM food vigorously,? its narrator grimly intoned. ?This is a means of controlling the world by controlling the world?s food production.?

Peng Guangqian, a retired major-general and prominent think-tanker, echoed these sentiments in an article published by official media in August. He said America might be setting a ?trap?. The result, he said, could be ?far worse than the Opium War? between Britain and China in the 1840s that Chinese historians regard as the beginning of a ?century of humiliation? at the hands of foreign powers.

China already uses plenty of GM products. More than 70% of its cotton is genetically modified. Most of the soyabeans consumed in China are imported, and most of those imports are GM (often from America). The technology is widely used for growing papayas. The government wants to develop home-grown GM varieties and has spent heavily on research, eager to maintain self-sufficiency in food. Officials see GM crops as a way of boosting yields on scarce farmland.

In 2009 China granted safety certificates for two GM varieties of rice and one of maize. This raised expectations that it might become the first country in the world to use GM technology in the production of a main staple. But further approvals needed for commercial growing have yet to be granted. To the consternation of GM supporters, the safety certificates for the rice are due to expire next August.

Public opinion is a big reason for the delay. Environmental groups in China have rarely succeeded in changing government policy. Officials have long treated such NGOs with suspicion and made it hard for them to register or set up offices in more than one place. The only NGO in China that devotes much time to the GM issue is an international one: Greenpeace. But the anti-GM lobby has thrived, thanks not least to the adoption of the cause by conservatives in the establishment as well as by informal groups of diehard Maoists who see America as a threat.

To the Maoists, opposing GM food is an urgent priority. Hardly a speech is made by one of them without mentioning it. ?I support Mao Zedong thought,? shouted one of the protesters outside the agriculture ministry. The police usually treat them with kid gloves; unlike others who protest in public, they are ardent supporters of Communist Party rule. And on this issue, at least, the Maoists enjoy much sympathy; public anxiety about food safety has soared in recent years thanks to a series of scares. Of 100,000 respondents to an online poll in November, nearly 80% said they opposed GM technology.

The fightback begins

Since a change of China?s leadership a year ago, however, supporters of GM food inside the government and among the public have begun fighting back. In October Chinese media reported that 61 senior academics, in a rare concerted effort, had petitioned the government to speed up the commercialisation of GM crops. The Ministry of Agriculture was also said to be preparing a new public-education campaign on the merits of GM food (it issued a swift rebuttal of General Peng?s remarks, saying GM foods certified in China were just as safe as any other food). Since May Huazhong Agricultural University in the central city of Wuhan has organised nearly 30 public events promoting GM rice, including, in October, the serving of porridge made from it to about 300 people.

One of the recent petitioners, Li Ning of China Agricultural University, laments that the issue remains ensnared by nationalist sentiment. Among students, he says, ?lots of them wonder how to express their patriotism; people say opposing GM is patriotic, so they say, ?Fine, I?ll oppose GM.?? He says the scientists have not received an official answer to their appeal, but he is heartened at least by their new willingness to speak out. ?Previously there was only one voice, and it was anti-GM. Now we?ve entered a period of acute antagonism.? The government, it appears, is waiting for the dust to settle before it lets the paddy fields fill with the controversial strains. That may take some time.

                                  PART 2

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SOURCE:  Market Watch

AUTHOR:  Cui Zheng, Yu Dawei, Yang Jie


DATE:    20.12.2013

SUMMARY: "In July, 61 members of the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the Chinese Academy of Engineering submitted a petition to the country?s leaders asking that they begin promoting industrial cultivation of genetically modified (GM) rice as soon as possible. "

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In July, 61 members of the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the Chinese Academy of Engineering submitted a petition to the country?s leaders asking that they begin promoting industrial cultivation of genetically modified (GM) rice as soon as possible. 

 The experts did not seek support from the public, and their names remain a secret. Information about the petition was only released three months later by Zhang Qifa, of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS). Zhang, dean of Huazhong Agricultural University?s College of Life Sciences and Technology, made the announcement at a conference in the capital.

Zhang said that the petition stated ?the promotion of industrialized cultivation of GM rice can wait no longer, otherwise we will harm the national interest. The commercialization of GM food will be unable to develop, which will have an enormous impact on scientific research.?

Zhang?s research team obtained safety certifications for GM rice four years ago, meaning that the approval procedures for industrial cultivation should have begun long ago, but policy makers have been dragging their feet, and permission has not been handed out yet. In another year, the safety certifications will expire.

This situation reflects the difficulty that the development of GM crops has faced in China.

AFP/Getty Images

In the 1990s, the government approved commercial cultivation of GM cotton. With policy support, domestically developed insect-resistant GM cotton took over a domestic market that used to be dominated by the U.S. company Monsanto Co. MON +0.65%  Since then, however, the government has not approved the planting of any other GM crops.

?China?s vacillating attitude toward genetically modified organisms (GMOs) has caused the promotion of their application in China to come to a complete halt for years,? Zhang said.

One of Zhang?s team members and a professor at Huazhong Agricultural University, Lin Yongjun, said that the Chinese are world leaders in the research of GM rice, but the slow pace of industrialization is causing anxiety among the country?s scientists.

Lin explained that a given type of GM rice must be replaced in a certain number of years. The current replacement cycle is about three to four years. The reason for this, said Lin, is that a highly vigorous variety this year might become less competitive next year or in a few years.

Policy makers are aware of the importance of GMO technology. In February 2006, the State Council, the country?s cabinet, listed the cultivation of new GM varieties alongside such major projects as the development of oil and gas fields, manned space flights and manufacturing large airplanes. On July 9, 2008, the State Council pledged to invest a total of 20 billion yuan ($3.3 billion) in the development of new GMO varieties by 2020.

But to date, the government still has not taken the most critical step: industrial cultivation. GMO efforts are limited to pilot programs in the hands of scientists. Lin Min, the director of the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences (CAAS) Biotechnology Research Institute, said that one of the reasons behind the predicament is widespread ?anti-GMO? fervor.

Ke Bingsheng, president of China Agricultural University, said at forum on rural development this year that popular opposition to GM food has reached the policy-making level and affected the operations of scientific research departments.

A dirty name

Opposition to GMOs began in Europe, almost as soon as cultivation began. The attitudes of European regulators toward the planting and import of GMOs have fluctuated since.

Beginning in the 1990s, in response to the growing popularity of environmental movements and a scare over mad cow disease, European food-safety regulators maintained a conservative stance toward GMOs. In 1997, the European Union passed a series of ?novel food regulations,? demanding that any food product containing GMO materials be labeled as such. Beginning in 1998, the EU did not approve any new GMO products for sale in European markets.

In 2000, after years of arguing between the EU and representatives from the United States and Canada, the World Trade Organization decided that the EU?s de-facto ban on GMO products was in violation of its charter, spurring the EU to change its stance. Leaders of European nations that long had conservative attitudes toward GMOs have recently come to be much more accepting of them.

Since 2007, the EU?s approval process for GMO products has sped up every year. The EU has approved imports of over 20 varieties of GMO corn, as well as several varieties of soybeans, sugar beets, potatoes and other crops.

The origins of the ?anti-GMO? movement in China are diverse and driven largely by the growing popularity of organic agriculture.

Of all the organizations pushing the Chinese ?anti-GMO? movement in the early years, the local chapter of international environmental group Greenpeace was the most powerful. Greenpeace argued against GMO technology in China on several levels, including presenting the supposed risks to the environment, complaining about policy transparency and exposing illegal operations in cultivation.

In 2002, Greenpeace issued a report condemning insect-resistant cotton for increasing the numbers of pest insects. The report?s drafting was presided over by a researcher for the Nanjing Institute of Environmental Sciences, Xue Dayuan. The government?s late response incited domestic controversy regarding GM agriculture.

In 2005, a Greenpeace investigation into rice-seed markets and cultivation zones in the central province of Hubei revealed that there was commercial planting of GM rice varieties not approved by the state, and that some of the unapproved rice had already been harvested and sent to market. The government had no choice but to investigate. 

                                  PART 3

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DATE:    20.12.2013

SUMMARY: "The recent event involving genetically modified rice in Wuhan, central China?s Hubei province has sparked another round of nationwide debate about the safety of GM crops. "

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The recent event involving genetically modified rice in Wuhan, central China?s Hubei province has sparked another round of nationwide debate about the safety of GM crops.

Earlier this month, a website conducted a sampling survey covering different brands of rice sold in supermarkets in Hubei province. One sample was found to contain genetically modified organisms.

A quiet laboratory with researchers doing experiments with the controversial genetically modified rice. This is the National Key Laboratory of Crop Genetic Improvement at Huazhong Agricultural University,in central China?s Hubei province.

Their recent product, the ?golden rice?,modified to produce more beta-carotene, a form of Vitamin A, has raised wide concern over the safty of such products.

Professor Lin Yongjun, the project leader of insect-resistant transgenic rice varieties of the lab has been leading his team to make GM rice for over 10 years.

?Two of our GM rice varieties have already been granted safety certificates by the Ministry of Agriculture in 2009. The certificates were granted only after rigorous testing and inspection, including a 90-day experiment during which the rice was fed to rats, and tests were carried out on three successive generations of rice to ensure product safety,? said Lin Yongjun, professor of Huazhong Agricultural university.

This is the mystery golden rice. This October, the first China Golden Rice Tasting Event was held at Huazhong Agricultural University, sparking another round of nationwide debate over the safety of GM crops.

?Public doubt concerning the safety of GM foods was highlighted recently when Internet users overwhelmingly sided with many well-known people. They are not scientists. It?s not right for them to judge something they don?t know. So we want to quell public fears about the safety of the GM products,? said Lin.

Soybeans are a daily necessity for most Chinese. They are used to make tofu, cooking oil and animal feed. In China, up to 80 percent of soybeans are now imported from the countries including the United States, Brazil and Argentina. And most of these are genetically modified.

In China, all the products containing genetically modified soybean are forced to be labeled. But no specific protocols have been rolledout for the commercialization of GM rice in China. In early December, rice sold at a supermarket in Hubei province was detected positive for genetically modified organisms.

?I?m completely against it. We?re not experiments. Some GM foods have already been imported or commercialized without further research. I?m against it,? said local resident.

?I also highly doubt its safety now, but I believe GM foods have many advantages. If the government and academics can prove them completely safe, I will definitely try them,? said a local resident.

Rice is a staple food for most Chinese people. Currently, the safety certificates issued to Professor Lin?s research team are the only one in China. He said there is an urgent need to commercialize GM rice to correct the imbalance between China?s grain output and demand.

GM foods have been a hotly discussed topic on China?s internet in recent years. So far the public has gotten conflicitng information by various professional researchers. In the end, concerned citizens are still waiting for further research to definitively prove the safty of GM products.