The GMO Controversy in China: More than Food Security
By Hongzhou Zhang

The GMO Controversy in China: More than Food Security

Mar. 15, 2016  |     |  0 comments

The 2016 No. 1 Central Document marked the 13th consecutive year that China’s No. 1 central documents focused on agriculture and related issues. The No. 1 Central Document for 2016, while underscoring the vital role modern agriculture plays in China, has drawn heated discussion from the public as it proposes to cautiously promote the GMO (Genetically Modified Organism) industry in China.

This is certainly not the first time that China’s No. 1 central document mentioned GMOs. Nonetheless, the focus has long been on advancing research and development in GM technologies. As the domestic debate over the safety of the GM crops heated up in recent years, more attention has been paid to educating the public. For instance, the No. 1 Central Document for 2015 called for reinforcing the technological research, safety management, and the scientific popularization of agricultural GMOs. Hence, this year’s No. 1 document which states that the country will carefully promote technology related to GMOs is a clear signal that the Chinese government is determined to push forward the commercialization of GM technologies, particularly GM grains, in the country.

China’s strong support for GM technology is driven by a wide range of factors including concerns over food security and agricultural sustainability, as well as strategic considerations and practical reasons.

Multiple Drivers

Food security is unquestionably the biggest driver behind the country’s strong support for agricultural GMOs. As the most populous country in the world, China’s policy makers regard food security as being of paramount importance. Grain self-sufficiency in particular has long been the bottom-line of the country’s food security strategy. However, with very limited land and water resources, yield improvement has naturally become the most hopeful solution to China’s food security problem, and China has placed great emphasis on agricultural technologies, particularly modern seeding technologies. As China's former Premier Wen Jiabao said in an interview in 2011, food security remains China’s biggest concern and there is no other way to address the challenge than to rely on as high-yield variety breeding and GM technologies to transform the agricultural sector. For decades, the Chinese government has invested heavily in hybrid seeding technologies, including the well-known hybrid rice. By 2015,hybrid rice made up nearly 60 percent of China’s total rice production, and has contributed significantly to the country’s grain production increase in the past decade. China’s grain yield has become much higher than the international standard and is almost up to par with that of the developed countries, including the United States and Japan.

Despite this remarkable success, there seems to be very little room for further yield improvement with the hybrid seeding technology, and the economic and environmental costs cast further doubts over the future of hybrid seeding technology. The general consensus is that hybrid crops are more susceptible to pests and diseases than the traditional varieties. As a result, these are highly dependent on the application of fertilizers and pesticides. With only 9 percent of the world’s arable land, China is responsible for 35 percent of the world’s total use of fertilizers and pesticides. Excessive and inefficient use of fertilizers and pesticides not only results in soaring production costs but also leads to severe land and water pollution, which in turn causes food safety problems and undermines the sustainability of China’s agricultural sector. Hence, as stated by Yuan Longping – the father of hybrid rice in China - GM technology is the key to solving China’s food problems in the future. To promote the development of GM technology, China made it a development priority in its 12th Five-Year Plan (2011-2015) and the state has invested billions of dollars into GM technology development.

GM technology is considered and supported by the Chinese government and top leadership of China as an emerging sector of strategic importance

Economic and strategic considerations are also important contributing factors. As one of the major developers of GM technology, China could potentially enjoy huge economic benefits through the expansion of GM crops both domestically and abroad. Currently, international seed companies such as Monsanto, DuPont and Syngenta are leaders in developing GM technologies. Industrial countries currently have an over 70 percent share of the global USD 15.7 billion GM crop market. Nevertheless, Chinese seed companies are not very far behind. As a matter of fact, GM food is a field in which China is globally competitive and China is a leader in developing GM rice and cotton technologies. With billions of dollars in investment in GM technology by the Chinese government in the coming years, it is possible that China's indigenous GM technologies could break the western dominance.

GM technology is considered and supported by the Chinese government and top leadership of China as an emerging sector of strategic importance. In 2010, the State Council codified the importance of these industries in a policy document entitled “the Decision on Accelerating the Development of Strategic Emerging Industries.” Seven innovating industries, including GM technology, were identified, and China hopes that these industries will be drivers for China’s broader growth as an internationally competitive economy. In a speech by Xi Jinping at the Rural Work conference in 2014, he called on domestic scientists to “boldly research and innovate, and dominate the high points of GMO techniques. Big foreign companies must not be allowed to control the market for GM crops.”

There are practical reasons at play as well. Regardless of government policies, the commercialization of GM crops appears to be an unstoppable trend. For years, Chinese farmers have been illegally growing GM corn and rice. For instance, Greenpeace reports that 93 percent of samples taken in 2014 from corn fields in five counties in Liaoning province tested positive for traces of GM crops. And an official report in the same year revealed that three out of five bags of rice randomly bought at supermarkets in Wuhan were found to contain GM rice.

Huge Challenges Ahead

Despite the government’s strong support, the fate of GMOs in China still remains uncertain. Public distrust toward GM food remains the biggest obstacle. A survey in March 2014 by the Global Times showed that 72 percent of respondents thought GM food was unsafe and 22.5 percent said they were unsure about it, which means merely 4.8 percent of the respondents trust GM food.

While debates on GM food range from safety concerns to environmental impact, GMO-related conspiracy theories are also gaining ground and GM food is increasingly being portrayed as a matter of national security. China has long feared that the United States could launch a food war against China. The famous quote – “control oil and you control nations; control food and you control the people” – from Dr. Henry Kissinger has not only been used by conservative scholars but also top leaders as a constant reminder of the strategic importance to national security of control over food. To many, GMOs appear to be the new battleground for food dominance between China and the US. For instance, PLA strategists including Senior Colonel Dai Xu, Major General Peng Guangqian and Rear Admiral Luo Yuan have argued that GMOs are bio-weapons launched by the US against China. In 2013, an educational movie jointly produced by the National Defense University, two departments under the Ministry of Defense, and the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, claimed that the US is using GMOs to destroy China. And at the 12th National Security Forum in Beijing in December 2013, several Chinese generals, including the retired Lieutenant-General Mi Zhenyu – a top PLA strategist – criticized GMOs for threatening China’s national security and called for the establishment of a biosecurity defense system.

The Chinese government’s strong support for and the public’s deep-seated distrust towards GMOs will continue to create tensions and shape China’s policy towards GMOs. Being the world's largest agricultural producer and leading food importer, China's attitude towards GMOs then will have a far-reaching impact on future GM research and the global agricultural industry.

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