Wednesday, March 13, 2013

China Ag Official Gives GMO Views

In a press conference this week, one of China's vice ministers of agriculture articulated the Ministry's nuanced approach to agricultural genetically-modified organisms. While agricultural officials are generally in favor of GMOs as a way of feeding the population, they approach them with caution. There are also strong anti-GMO opinions spreading in China and there's a strong sense of nationalism in much of the rhetoric.

Vice Minister Chen Xiaohua called for developing GMO varieties as fast as possible while keeping tight control through careful safety monitoring and assessment.

Chen said, "We must strengthen research, developing advanced varieties through national GMO projects as soon as possible."

He added, at the same time China must " a lot of attention to biosafety issues, setting clear regulations and procedures to guarantee the safety of genetically modifications."

China's approach to GMOs has global implications since China is the largest producer and consumer of agricultural commodities.

Chen gave a nod toward the global scene when he remarked, "Realistically speaking, we are now in a leading position in the world in our current regulatory procedures, assessment system and grasp of standards.”

China's agricultural establishment is pro-GMO but there are strong reservations about biotech foods among Chinese consumers and industry.

Chen was presumably addressing these anti-GMO attitudes when he added, "Genetic modification is ultimately a scientific issue. [we] need to gradually shape public opinion by strengthening dissemination and explanations of scientific knowledge.”

Chen's views reflect those of agricutural technicians. Last December, at a gathering of high-profile academics giving opinions on GMOs, another vice minister and head of the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences, Li Jiayang, argued that China must pursue biotech research and industrialization to break through bottlenecks in order to feed the country's growing population. 

Chen Junshi, an academician of the academy of engineering said, a little more bluntly, “People who don’t want to eat GMOs don’t understand genetic modification technology.”

There is a strong nationalistic aspect of China's GMO strategy, based on a conspiracy theory foundation. A second reason Li Jiayang gave for the urgency of pursuing biotech research was concern about developed countries' "science and technology threat." 

The conspiracy theory was articulated on a Chinese blog post this month entitled,  "America’s GMO strategy is really to control the world!!!" The post criticizes people for only considering the effects of GMOs on human health and not seeing them as America's strategy for world domination. This blogger complains that American companies apply for patent protection as soon as they develop a genetically modified variety, don't let farmers plant it and don't let research institutes use it without paying. He criticizes Guangxi Province's agriculture department for collaborating with Monsanto to propagate a genetically modified corn seed which he says is grown on 8 million mu (1300 acres) and is spreading to major grain-producing areas in the north and northeast. He warns that traditional varieties will be eliminated, farmers and government will be slowly "strangled." America will gain control of agriculture and food, and the "whole world will grovel at America's knees and America will be emperor of the world!" warns this blogger.

Similar opinions are common in the Chinese blog sphere and this is probably what Vice Minister Chen had in mind when he called for shaping public opinion. 

A Chinese military official voiced a different conspiracy theory about genetically modified organisms. Luo Yuanshao, party secretary of a military science institute and representative to the Chinese Peoples Political Consultative Conference, gave an interview on March 3 where he issued a warning about GMOs in vaccines. Yuan said the country should be on the alert against the disorderly spread of GMOs, foreign countries' meddling in the vaccine process, and enemy countries using GMOs and vaccines as weapons to launch an attack against the Chinese people. 

China's agricultural establishment embraces a milder conspiracy theory. Officials want to prevent a flood of imported genetically-modified crops and they want to prevent domestic seed companies from getting swamped by multinationals. hence the cautious approach and big emphasis on clear regulations and strict assessments of biosecurity.

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