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GM food: Blight or bonanza?

The GM debate has recently heated up in China though GM crops are grown safely on 170 million hectares worldwide. China itself is a big importer of GM corn and soybeans. Tan Weiyun talks to people on both sides.

To eat or not to eat — that is the question increasingly asked in China. The issue of genetically modified organisms, GM foods, is making headlines and the debate is fierce.

After 20 years of commercial growing worldwide, a broad scientific consensus exists that GM food is safe, but debate has heated up in China and it’s getting emotional.

Several education campaigns have been launched by experts and organizations to persuade the public that GM food is safe to eat and has many benefits. These include hardiness, high yield, resistance to pests, disease, drought and herbicides, among others.

GM food tastings, including golden (vitamin A-enriched) rice dishes and education forums have been held around the country.

The Chinese government isn’t taking sides. It supports more education.

“We and related government departments will strengthen our work to let more people know what a genetically modified organism (GMO) is, understand it and eliminate their worries about the safety of GM food products,” Agriculture Ministry spokesman Bi Meijia said in a briefing on December 6, according to Reuters.

Two months ago, 61 members of Chinese Academy of Sciences submitted a joint letter to the political leadership, calling for the central government to support industrialization of GM crops.

Immediately, the scientists were widely condemned online as unpatriotic “traitors” who were bought off by foreign seed companies.

“If we can support ourselves with our own conventional rice, which has been proved safe and healthy during the past five thousand years, why do we hurry to industrialize GM rice?” said Professor Jiang Xiaoyuan, a PhD holder and dean of the school of the history and culture of science at Shanghai Jiao Tong University. “Those who are trying to promote GM rice in China must have their own hidden agendas.

“There may be no evidence now of harm to health or the environment, but no one knows what will happen in the future,” he told Shanghai Daily in a recent interview.

The pressing question is whether China should commercially develop its own GM staple crops to ensure its own food security and non-reliance upon foreign imports.

Rice is an emotive issue; no GM rice is imported or planted commercially, though safety certificates have been issued for two strains of domestically developed GM rice and a strain of GM maize. The reason: public opinion.

China’s GM imports include corn, soybeans, rapeseed for oil, sugar beets and cotton, all approved for safety.

The soybeans and corn are used for edible oil (which does not contain transgenic material) and for ingredients in animal feed (which does contain transgenic material). 

Many strains of GM corn have been approved to satisfy the increasing demand for meat, which is grain-fed.

According to US Department of Agriculture figures, China’s corn imports totaled around 3 million metric tons in 2012-13 and are expected to reach around 7 million metric tons in 2013-14.

In China, only GM cotton and papaya are planted commercially; cotton is overwhelmingly GM.

The GMO debate is complex, emotional and taps into deeply rooted fears over food security and safety.

The Chinese public is already anxious about food scandals and farming techniques that use large amounts of chemical fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, hormones and antibiotics. There are also worries about contaminated soil.

Complex, emotional debate

Even among well-educated people, there’s unease about GM foods and unforeseen health consequences, though none has been identified. What’s seen as tinkering with nature is unsettling.

One strain of GM “golden rice” is even enriched with vitamin A for better nutrition in impoverished areas. Vitamin A deficiency can lead to blindness. Tastings have been held around the country. But that’s not enough to persuade the public of its benefits.

Anti-GM forces, mostly health and environment advocates including some scientists, have fanned rumors of cancer cases, low sperm count and altered human DNA — all disproved.

GM food has also become a nationalistic issue, with GM advocates called “traitors” for supposedly succumbing to big US biotech agribusiness and trying to make the Chinese nation dependent on imported GM crops. None of that is happening.

Aware of public sentiment, the Chinese government is unlikely to embrace greater production of GM crops and GM imports until it can build public support.

It is concerned about food security, however, saying this stands at around 95 percent and will remain at that level. China is interested in GM food that can withstand difficult environmental conditions at a time of global warming and produce good yields to feed more people on limited arable land.

A pro-GM seminar, “Gala of GM Food,” was held in Beijing early this month, attended by Chinese GM researchers and agricultural experts. Shanghai Daily and other media were invited. The event was organized by CCTV reporter and commentator Wang Zhi’an, who supports expanded gene technology and development of GM food.

The conference was criticized as being furtive and even “terrible.”

GM has been controversial worldwide since it was developed around 30 years ago. In 1994, the first transgenic crop for marketing, the Flavr Savr tomato, was approved by the US Food and Agriculture Department.

GMOs are organisms in which the genetic material has been altered in a way that does not occur in nature. It involves transferring selected individual genes from one organism into another, also between non-related species. These methods create GM plants, which are used to grow GM crops.

There is broad scientific consensus that food on the market derived from GM crops poses no greater risk to human health than conventional food.

According to the World Health Organization, GM foods on the international market have passed risk assessments and are not likely to present health risks. In addition, no effects on human health have been shown as a result of the consumption of GM foods by the general population in the countries where they have been approved, WHO says.

The UN agency also says that since GM foods are different, their safety should be assessed on a case-by-case basis.

GM food is here

“Whether you want it or not, you might have eaten GM food in China’s restaurants, roadside eateries, school canteens and hotels, which are running on the oil extracted from GM soybeans and rapeseed,” said Professor Luo Yunbo, head of the Food Science and Nutrition Engineering Department at Chinese Agricultural University in Beijing. He addressed the GM food “gala.”

As a matter of fact, China imports more than 58 million tons of soybeans, mostly GM, every year from the United States and Argentina (Brazil will also be exporting from next year). The China-grown non-GM soybeans used to make edible oil only amount to around 10 million tons.

“More than half of the cooking oil is soybean oil and almost 90 percent of the soybeans are genetically modified,” said Wang Xiaoyu, deputy secretary-general of the Heilongjiang Province Soybean Association.

Because of high imports in recent years, around 90 percent of the soybean oil extraction plants have been shut down in Heilongjiang, the country’s biggest soybean oil producer, Wang said.

To some extent, Professor Luo said, China’s soybean industry is “controlled” by foreign countries. “Now foreign GM corn is knocking at our door,” he told the conference in Beijing. “Time is pressing and we must industrialize our own GM crops.”

“Any new crops must be the result of a change of genes,” said GM supporter Chen Junshi, a member of Chinese Academy of Engineering and a research professor at the National Institute for Nutrition and Food Safety and the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

“Genes are part protein,” he told the gala. “Animal protein or plant protein, GM or non-GM, are all treated in the same way by our gastric acid and digestive enzymes. We won’t be affected by the alien genes. If our body could be affected, then why wouldn’t we be changed to be pigs by eating pork?”

GM rice and GM soybeans, for example, are engineered with alien genes transferred from non-related, nonfood species. An herbicide gene is inserted into soybeans and a pesticide gene is inserted into rice, a method used in GM crops planted on around 160 million hectares worldwide.


“More than 90 percent of them are grown and engineered with genes from bacteria, helping eliminate the need to apply chemical pesticides,” said Zhu Zhen, a researcher from the Institute of Genetics and Development Biology, Chinese Academy of Sciences. “It sounds creepy but it is safer than chemicals. It decreases more of the hazardous chemicals that we would eat in conventional food.”

The anti-GM camp has marshalled its forces.

Tong Pingya, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences, has consistently opposed industrialization of GM staple foods in China and is a pioneer of the anti-GM camp.

“No scientific research so far has proved that GM techniques can increase production. In other words, the so-called high-yield GM technology is a fraud,” Tong wrote on his blog. “I’m not against GM technology. What I’m fighting against is industrialization of GM staple food in China.”

He says there is no gene that itself can increase crop production, which depends on seeding, fertilizing, irrigation, weeding, drainage and other factors.

Another opponent of industrialization is molecular biologist Fang Yifang, a visiting scholar at Shanghai Jiao Tong University. He has spoken out since 2010.

“China’s GM technology is very backward and has fallen behind. We’re now just copying the techniques from the 1980s,” Fang told Shanghai Daily. “Take GM rice. A pesticide gene is inserted into the GM rice. What is that? It’s a thing that even God doesn’t recognize.”

He said some people are trying to mislead the public by confusing crossbreeding and GM. “Here is my explanation. Crossbreeding is like a Chinese marrying an American, while GM is like a human marrying a tree.”

Warning of GM rice, Fudan life sciences professor Yang Jinshui recently told a newspaper, “GM soybean oil, cotton and papaya that have got transgenic safety certificates issued by the government are safe, but when it comes to rice, it is a different thing.” Yang is a member of the genetic research team at the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences.

“The bacteria genes in GM soybean oil and corn oil can be completely metabolized and eliminated, but those alien genes in GM rice cannot be,” Yang said. “Eating the rice will definitely bring the bacteria genes into the human body. Whether they will affect our body, whether they are hazardous and what kind of hazard are still uncertain today.”

Furthermore, rice is the staple food of the Chinese, so the issue concerns everyone, he said. “If industrialized and commercialized on a large scale, there is no turning back in our country. So we have to be extremely careful.”

Proponents counter that Chinese GM technology is mature and the food is safe.

“The gene segment can be inserted into a place where we want it. If it had any harmful effect on other places, we could just discard those affected places,” said Professor Lu Baorong from the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Fudan University. He is a member of the National Bio-safety Committee.

Foreign companies

In addition to the dispute over science, the GM discussion online has become ensnared in nationalist sentiment, with talk of a conspiracy to undermine China by making it dependent on imported GM staple seeds.

Since 2001, Monsanto Co, the American agricultural biotechnology multinational, has entered the China market, running a large-scale corn seed cross-breeding program, developing seeds especially for China. No GM is involved.

There was no response to e-mails to Monsanto and telephone calls to its Beijing office seeking comment over the Christmas holiday.

Monsanto is not a big player in China; only around 1 percent of its global revenue comes from China.

Monsanto Chairman and CEO Hugh Grant was recently interviewed by Caixin online, which published an article on Tuesday. Monsanto supplies 70 percent of the world’s GM seed stock.

Asked about GM issues in China, Grant told the magazine that the government and scientists should decide whether GM crops have a place in the country’s future. “I don’t think Monsanto has a say in those decisions,” he said.

About whether Monsanto has plans to develop GM products in China, Grant said, “It will take a long time, I think. Chinese scientists and researchers are making significant progress. But in the near future, I think it will be about breeding.

“All the drama is about biotechnology, but the untold story is modern breeding systems,” Grant told Caixin. “China’s yields today are a bit less than 6 tons per hectare, and the US has more like 11 tons per hectare. There’s no reason why China’s yields can’t match those in the US.”

Critics have another narrative.

“It’s (Monsanto’s) ultimate goal is to plant each piece of China’s farmland with their GM seeds,” said Tong Pingya, a researcher in the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences.

Professor Jiang from Shanghai Jiao Tong University warned, “Industrialization is very dangerous. Once industrialized, we’re making money for foreign companies like Monsanto. Our people are used as guinea pigs.”

Rules and labels

China has strict rules on approving GM food safety. It also has labeling rules that critics call inadequate.

Primary products such as soy sauce, soy milk, oil and tofu are labeled, but not necessarily the secondary GM ingredients in processed foods such as fried chicken (using GM oil) or cakes containing sugar from GM beets.

There is no “GM” mark or Chinese equivalent and the size of lettering can be quite small. China requires three major labels, including “GM Food,” “Produced and processed by GM ingredients” or “Made from GM ingredients but containing no transgenic components.”

“You can minimize the GM label, just like the ‘Smoking is dangerous to your health’ warning on cigarettes,” Yang Tongdan, PhD, from the Health Law Research Center of Shanghai University of Political Science and Law, told Shanghai Daily. She is secretary-general of the Shanghai Law Society, Health Law Association.

It usually takes eight to 10 years in China for a domestic GM crop to enter the market. At this time, only GM papaya and cotton are on the market.

A GM seed goes through laboratory evaluation, intermediate experiments, limited environmental release, productivity testing (planted on 10,000 square meters in a closed environment), and final safety certification. Each step takes two to three years.

Foreign companies must file documents on intermediate experiments, environmental release, and productivity testing. They must submit safety certificates from their countries’ authorities.

They then must go through evaluations in China to get safety approval before they can be imported.

The procedure for foreign GMOs takes more than three years.


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