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GM in China: ‘paranoia’ and public opinion

The Chinese public is grappling with the many complex and uncertain problems around food in an increasingly sophisticated debate

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It's hard to overstate the importance of food security in China, which has one-fifth of the world’s population and only 8% of its arable land (Image by Natalie Behring / Greenpeace)

When permits for Chinese researchers to grow genetically modified rice and corn expired this summer, there was concern. More so, given there was little indication that the Ministry of Agriculture would renew them.

The certificates, issued in 2009, concerned two types of Bt rice, which express a gene of the bacillus thuringiensis bacterium, conferring pest resistance, and phytase maize, which when used as feed can increase the uptake of phosphorus in pigs and chickens. This in turn can lead to energy savings and more efficient land use. Though not the only homegrown transgenic crops, these projects had attracted particular attention, both for their potential to produce path-breaking examples of Chinese “indigenous innovation”, and for the perceived risks of altering such culturally resonant staple crops.

Making sure people have enough food on the table is a political priority in most countries, but it is hard to overstate its importance in China, with one-fifth of the world’s population and only 8% of its arable land, and where famine, scarcity and rationing are all-too-recent memories for the leadership. In 2014, for the 11th year in a row, China’s first central policy document of the year concerned rural development.

For many years, agricultural biotechnology has been a significant government priority: it is, for example, one of seven “Strategic Emerging Industries” in China’s latest Five-Year Plan. Furthermore, China has in recent decades seen a massive increase in the production, sale and consumption of meat; phytase maize, in particular, represents an innovation geared towards increasing the efficiency and reducing the environmental costs of this expansion.

So, why were the certificates allowed to lapse before the crops could be commercialised? No clear answer has emerged, but media reports suggested four possible explanations.

First, some pointed to the economics: in the case of Bt rice, Huang Jikun notes that China has nearly reached self-sufficiency in producing rice with conventional varieties, suggesting the ministry decided there was little need to commercialise GM rice in the near future. Second, others chalked it up to “social stability” concerns, with a Greenpeace official telling ScienceInsider that “public concern around safety issues” played an important role. This same campaigner suggested a third explanation, that problems with regulation — “loopholes in assessing and monitoring [GM] research” — underlay the decision, too.

Finally, Cong Cao, an associate professor at University of Nottingham, suggested a fourth explanation: simply put, delusions of an ultranationalist variety. For Cao, the u-turn can be blamed on “outrageous” notions — apparently held by some military and other elite figures — that GM food is a “devious plot to annihilate the Chinese”, disseminated by an “anti-GM movement whose power and influence are more than matched by its fervour and sheer, undiluted paranoia.”

Of course, a fuller explanation might incorporate all four elements and others. It’s an open question, for example, how effective the technology had really proven to be. In China today, scientific and environmental decision-making is fragmented and far less technocratic than is often assumed, and public and elite anxiety does seem to run high when it comes to genetic modification. But it would be careless to simply write off the situation as reflecting public, or even elite, ignorance and paranoia about food and agriculture.

First, China’s anti-GM movement, such as it is, reflects the emergence of a larger public debate than in previous eras on many sides of this controversy. Scientists have also made impassioned public and private appeals to government: last year, a petition to the country’s leaders, signed by 61 unnamed government-linked scientists, charged that “the promotion of industrialised cultivation of GM rice can wait no longer, otherwise we will harm the national interest.”

Recently, pro-transgenics advocates — spearheaded by the commentator Fang Zhouzi, who wrote about phytase maize in 2012 that it was evidence “the clever use of genetic modification will help protect the environment” — staged GM rice-tasting events in 22 Chinese cities.

Second, that public debate around GM food in China resonates with a number of deeper issues. Cao contrasts China and the United Kingdom, suggesting the UK will push ahead with the commercialisation of GM crops, despite it being “fanciful in the extreme” to suggest that China’s “regulatory environment is conspicuously slacker” than that of the UK.

Yet this seems to overlook quite legitimate public concerns around regulation, risk, trust and the litany of food safety problems China has encountered in recent years. News last month that a major supplier in China sold expired meat to western fast-food outlets followed widely reported cases of contamination by heavy metals, veterinary drugs and food additives, fears about “gutter oil”, and most famously the scandal in 2008, when melamine-contaminated baby formula led to the deaths of six infants and sickened hundreds of thousands of children.

For many observers in China, the avoidance of food scarcity is a remarkable, laudable achievement of the reform era, but the dominant agricultural development paradigm has come at a cost. In this analysis, the “complex of interrelated problems” that resulted, sometimes known as the sannong problems (affecting nongmin, peasants, nongcun, the countryside, and nongye, agriculture), has not only had implications for food safety, but other effects too, such as the widespread overuse of chemical fertilisers and pesticides, soil erosion, the fragmentation of rural communities and rising social inequality.

Furthermore, it would be wrong to suggest the UK boasts a pro-GM public consensus (few places do). In fact, opposition to GM foods in the UK stands as a good example of how high-profile failures around food safety, particularly in the management of the BSE crisis, can contribute to a breakdown of public trust in the regulatory system, as well as the difficulty of separating such issues from “political” concerns about ownership and the overall direction of agricultural development.

Citizen networks

Finally, another narrative might point to a Chinese public grappling with a great many complex and uncertain problems around food, agriculture and the environment in an innovative and sophisticated fashion. Rather than ignoring or misunderstanding the challenge of producing safe food, citizens are establishing new networks, like Beijing Farmers Market, which connect farmers to consumers and benefit local producers while increasing trust and knowledge about sustainable agricultural practices.

Journalists have helped consumers to share information about food-safety risks; rural cooperatives have mushroomed across China, often practicing forms of ecological agriculture; innovative producers are laying bare their supply chains by applying social-media technologies; and participatory plant-breeding projects have involved farmers and local organisations in improving crop varieties and rural livelihoods.

Certainly, some of the discourse around GM in China is paranoid and misguided, and much like its championing of clean energy, Chinese government support for innovation could perhaps be game changing for agricultural biotechnology. But focusing exclusively on one vision of high-tech innovation — or writing off its critics as purveyors of “anti-science” (when perhaps there are legitimate reasons for concern) — could not only obscure avenues for engagement on scientific and environmental decision-making, but also overlook other, emergent innovations addressing China’s agricultural, food and environmental challenges.

It’s pertinent instead to ask how more open approaches to scientific governance could transform a debate, which – as demand for food and animal feed continues to rise – has surely only just begun.

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Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

可持续消费是可持续发展的关键

中国的反转基因生物行动有其自身的特点!
无论转基因还是非转基因,如果中国保持过去10-15年所采用的增长方式,能否可持续发展将成为一个问题。重回基本和重返简单是非常必要的行动,对于西方国家来说也是一样的!

sustainable consumption is key to sustainable development

China's anti-GMOs movement has its own characteristics!
GM or not GM, if China grows the way it has been in the last 10-15 years, sustainability will be a question. A movement of back to basics and simplicity is needed, though this is also true elsewhere in the west!

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

拒绝转基因

转基因种子对中国对食品供应链来说存有很大的风险。这是转基因公司(无性种子)占领市场的阴谋。转基因种子是培育农场产出的单一经济。
风险:(1)母体土壤种子停产(2)玉米和水稻必须来自区域种子及基因种子,以备在接下来的时节继续生长下季节(3)蜜蜂的环境功能,就像花朵养份和土壤中微生物的转移阵列(4)有证据表明转基因(无性繁殖)的植物/种子,昆虫修改为其他植物转移的阵列(5)如果转基因种子成为母体种子失败,则无法实现增长。

这需要政府在做出决策用10年的时间研究,再推广给农民。对于耕作土壤滥施肥的问题也应如此。中国需要恢复再生古老的土地土壤。我任职期间做过相关研究,罗伯特·维森。

No GM

GM seeds are the great risk to PRC food supply chain. It’s a ploy to have perpetual markets for GM Company (de-sexed seeds). GM seeds are from their parent farms mono culture. Risks; (1) when parent soil seeds stop yielding (2) Maize and rice must be from regional seeds and genetic seeds saved for following season (3) The environ functions of bees and like transfer an array of function from natural flowers and therein soil microbes. (4) Evidence suggests GM (de-sexed) plants/seeds the insects’ transfers the modification to an array of other plant life. (5) If the GM seeds grower parent seed farms fail the elements with the PRC farms hold a residual GM interference hence no growth
This demands a national full political decision to spend a dedicated 10 year full study before and release to Farmers. This should also apply to the indiscriminate fertilizer to farm soil. China needs to restore the ancient land soil regeneration protocol I studied such during tenure. Robert Vincin

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

好文章

恭喜作者写出这篇好文章,尤其因为这篇文章是为数不多的旨在分析和了解情况,而旨在挑起和助长激辩!我个人很怀疑“回归旧时农业生产”这一概念,据我了解这是行不通的(因为无法产出足够的粮食)。我对这篇文章唯一的批评是文章末尾讨论的“创新技术”有所夸大。

凯·柯腾斯缇迪

great piece

Congratulations to this great piece, especially because it is one of the few aiming at analyzing and understanding the situation rather than contributing to a heated and emotional debate! I am personally very doubtful of "returning to old school farming" as I understand the math just doesn't work (it would just simply not produce enough food). In this vein, my only criticism regarding this article is that the I feel the importance of a "new movement" discussed at the end is somewhat overstated. Best, Kai Kottenstede