Saturday, January 25, 2014

China on GMOs: Apply Brake and Accelerator

China's leadership has adopted a cautious approach toward genetically modified foods. They want to keep one food on the accelerator by pushing more research, while keeping the other foot on the brake by slowing down commercial approvals. Any research results remain bottled up in laboratories as wariness of GMOS among consumers builds. This approach raises the question, "Who will persevere in research on things that may never be used?"

China's contentious GMO debate popped up at a January 22 press conference where the top agricultural policy advisor, Chen Xiwen, expounded on various topics in the central communist party leadership's "Number 1 Document" on rural policy released earlier this week. The document contained no direct mention of genetic modification, but the section encouraging innovation in agricultural science and technology included a call to "strengthen molecular breeding" as a foundation for research and biotechnology.

Chen expressed the view that genetically modified agricultural products must be subject to strict assessments to ensure they have no harmful side effects on consumers' health. When they are approved, Chen said, products containing GMOs must be labeled so consumers can decide for themselves whether to buy them.

Chen Xiwen also said that China, as a big agricultural country, can't be left behind in molecular breeding research--China needs to remain on the forefront. Thus, the "Number 1 Document" and several previous documents have urged pursuit of research on genetic modification.

A reporter noted that the 2010 "Number 1 document" promoted research on GMO crops, but recent editions have not mentioned it explicitly. He asked whether this reflects an increasingly cautious approach. Chen agreed, saying that reactions from various segments of society had prompted stricter commercial approvals. But he insisted there could be no slow-down in research.

The flashpoint in China's current debate is whether GM rice will be approved for commercial sale. A reporter asked Chen whether there was a possibility two Chinese GM rice varieties might be commercialized before their safety certificates expire in the next year. Chen replied that the Ministry of Agriculture will decide on this, but he felt approval is "unlikely" because China doesn't want to be the first country to commercialize genetically modified rice.

Chen said nonagricultural GM research should go ahead but China should be cautious with food crops. He noted that China's domestic crops are mostly GMO-free. Cotton--a non-food crop--accounts for most of its GMO production, and he said papaya is the only GMO food grown in China.

Chen downplayed the contribution of GMOs to productivity, saying that most GM crops are pest-resistant, reducing the need for chemical pesticides. Similarly, another agricultural policy advisor, Cheng Guoqiang, said genetically modified rice and wheat were not urgently needed now. He suggested that farmers don't benefit from GMOs because production is already so big that prices are falling.

Cheng Guoqiang recommends delaying commercialization of GM varieties as a measure to prevent multinational companies from dominating China's seed market. Cheng says China's domestic seed industry can't compete with Monsanto and other multinationals that occupy the commanding heights of the GMO seed market. China's seed industry, he says, is far behind in GM technology, lacks effective channels to disseminate new varieties to farmers, has little capital, no brands, and no strategic plan. He suggests that allowing GM seeds will result in the market being inundated with the seeds of multinationals while Chinese companies wither on the vine. 

The seed industry was a big focus of the 2012 "Number 1 Document," and its development was the subject of a paragraph in the 2014 document. When asked in the news conference whether foreign dominance of the seed industry is a concern, Chen Xiwen said, yes, this is an issue. He claimed that three-fourths of vegetable seeds and some corn seeds are foreign, but foreign companies don't have a significant role for other types of seeds.

So China finds itself in a deepening quandary over genetically modified crops. Its consumers are hyper-health-conscious and receptive to all kinds of rumors and conspiracy theories. Chinese consumers often say GMOs shouldn't be sold unless it can be proven they do no harm. This sets up an impossible standard since there are an unlimited number of possible health risks, and health effects of foods are notoriously difficult to isolate and take years to be discovered. Virtually all foods cause allergic reactions or other unpleasant effects for some proportion of the population. 

Meanwhile, it is unrealistic to think domestic research on GM crops will proceed when final products have little chance of commercialization. (It certainly won't progress fast enough to catch up with multinationals.) All the best scientists and plant breeders have already left China and can be found in the labs of American companies and universities. China's loss of talent will continue. Money will be thrown at Chinese labs that produce nothing of consequence.

Chinese farmers are, in fact, eager to gain access to genetically modified seeds. Drenching fields with pesticides is not a sustainable strategy for farmers to protect their crops from heavy pest pressure in monocropped fields. In studies of GM pest-resistant rice about ten years ago, Chinese researchers found the main benefit was that farmers didn't get sick from spraying pesticides. New seeds are being developed overseas with traits like drought tolerance that China desperately needs. Moreover, Chinese farmers working off-farm and cultivating larger tracts of land no longer have time to spray and weed fields.  

With this demand and plentiful supply overseas, the border is getting leaky. In December 2013, "American Golden Corn" sold by a company in Guangdong to farmers in Hunan was alleged to be genetically modified. In May 2013, Harbin's inspection and quarantine bureau intercepted 21 boxes of American corn seed at a post office which they said was genetically modified. 

Simultaneously pushing the accelerator and brake is a dangerous way to drive.

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