x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

China moves to overcome GM angst

China may have a long and impressive history of agricultural invention but its people are passionately averse to transgenic technology. Hannah Gardner reports

Xia Fengke at her stall in Beijing's San Yuan Li Market. Hannah Gardner for The National
Xia Fengke at her stall in Beijing's San Yuan Li Market. Hannah Gardner for The National

BEIJING // Standing behind her well-stocked stall in Beijing’s Sanyuanli market, vegetable seller Xia Fengke points out the items of which her customers are most wary.

Cherry tomatoes, small cucumbers and corn-on-the-cob are top of the list, she says. But red peppers, broad beans and courgettes also give cause for concern.

Food scares are an almost weekly occurrence in China. But Ms Xia’s customers are not worried about the levels of pesticide or heavy metals. What they really want to know is: “Is this genetically modified?”

China may have a long and impressive history of agricultural invention — Chinese archaeologists claim the wheelbarrow and the plough were invented here — but its people are passionately averse to transgenic technology.

For a long time so was the Chinese government which, apart from a few exceptions, largely bans the growth and human consumption of GM crops.

Now, however, with rice yields dropping and a growing economy pushing up demand for food, China’s Agriculture Ministry and its affiliated scientists are pushing for a change in attitudes and the law.

“The conflict between supply and demand does not allow us to put aside the development of GM technology any longer,” Wu Kongming, the vice-president of the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences, told China National Radio recently.

“China’s situation has determined that we cannot follow countries with very rich land resources by using traditional methods to satisfy our demands,” he added.

China — which is home to one sixth of the world’s population but only 10 per cent of its arable land — has seen food imports rise dramatically over the last decade, leaving many to question whether the country is technically food secure any longer.

Water shortages, the dominance of old farming methods and urban sprawl also keeps agricultural output down.

Scientists say that based on current yields China would need to acquire 40 per cent more farm land to grow the amount of food it currently imports.

The solution, say scientists like Dr Wu, is to allow for the development and growth of crops which have had genes from other organisms added to them, making them more resistant to drought or pests.

This would also have the benefit of reducing pesticide use, which is incredibly high in China, they say.

China’s current laws forbid the growth and direct consumption of any GM foods apart from papayas, cherry tomatoes and bell peppers — which were approved during a short-lived relaxation a few years ago.

The import of GM crops is also highly regulated, with only a dozen or so strains of soy, corn, rapeseed and cotton — which are imported in huge amounts — having received approval.

These rules are relatively well enforced at China’s borders, but inside the country it is thought to be a different matter.

Environmentalists and food safety officials say drought-resistant GM rice is spreading by stealth because many small-scale farmers are planting and selling it illegally.

All of which adds to the fears of shoppers in markets like Sanyuanli.

“We should know if we are eating GM,” said one woman at Sanyuanli market, who accused farmers who grow such rice of “treating the public as guinea pigs”.

For others, it is the safety of the county that’s at stake.

In one conspiracy theory propagated by China’s nationalists, GM foods are an American weapon devised to weaken the Chinese economy and its people.

“America is mobilising its strategic resources to promote GM food vigorously,” a People’s Liberation Army (PLA) training video leaked on the internet last month said.

It went on to add: “This is a means of controlling the world by controlling the world’s food production.”

A few months earlier a former major general in the PLA, Peng Guangqian, wrote a column in the popular Global Times newspaper saying GM foods were a plot by America to “conquer” China’s people.

“We must not be naive … GM crops will could become weapons and the consequences could be far worse than the Opium War,” he warned, referencing Britain’s attempt to prise China open in the 1800’s by getting Chinese hooked on the opiate.

His fear, which to a certain degree is shared by many around the world, is that by adopting GM products, farmers are putting themselves in the hand of the companies that produce the seeds.

The two largest GM seed companies, Monsanto and DuPont, are based in the US.

“What will our people do if the West cuts off our food supply? Suck on the north-east wind,” Mr Peng asked somewhat dramatically.

However, China’s agricultural ministry hit back, accusing the major general of “cold war thinking”.

The answer, it said, was to adopt the technology and make it China’s own, not to shun it.

“The devolvement of transgenic technology is no less important than the development of space or aviation technology,” Lin Min, the director of the Biotechnology at Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences, wrote on the ministry’s website.

“Throughout history.. there are always people who feared new things and who have block[ed] the application of new technology but such people ultimately cannot slow the pace of human progress,” he added.

foreign.desk@thenational.ae