Sunday, September 21, 2014

China's GMO Impasse

Chinese officialdom appears to be at an impasse on its approach to genetically modified foods. The GMO impasse may have deeper roots than most observers realize. It may be emblematic of a broader collision between officialdom's "modernization" strategy and a creeping distrust of authority that is undermining the communist party's reliance on "science" as a palliative that hides the fundamental flaws in the system.

The flashpoint is the Ministry of Agriculture's failure to renew "safety certificates" for three GMO crop strains in August 2014. These GMO varieties were in the advanced stages of testing, and loss of safety certificates prevents moving toward commercial release. There was no explanation for the non-action and no indication of whether approvals might be granted in the future. A Chinese scientist involved in developing the crops told a journalist it was "inconvenient" to comment on the failure to extend the certificates and said inquiries had to be made with the university's propaganda office.

The crops with lapsed safety certificates include two strains of insect-resistant rice and a type of corn that promotes pigs' absorption of phosphorus from feed. Apart from these, the only other crops that have received such safety certificates include pest-resistant cotton and several obscure strains: a tomato with extended shelf-life, petunias with altered color, and disease-resistant strains of pepper and papaya. The rice has attracted the most attention since its approval would make it the first main GM food crop available in China.

The GM rice varieties were developed by researchers at Central China Agricultural University. They have been in the approval pipeline for 15 years. Application for safety approval was first made to the Ministry of Agriculture in 1999. After 11 years of initial assessments, safety certificates good for five years were awarded August 17, 2009. These certificates reached their expiration date last month and were not renewed.

The safety certificates are needed for the rice to proceed through testing in field trials to evaluate how they perform in production and ascertain environmental impacts. The approval process for GM crops includes many stages. It begins with laboratory tests and trials feeding rats. Then there are field trials and environmental release. The next stage is to obtain a production license and approval for commercialization. The GM rice is still in the testing stage and was supposed to be restricted to fields surrounding the university for testing purposes only.

There has been an uproar in Chinese news media about the GM rice strains finding their way into markets. Anti-GMO activists and a Chinese TV reporter claimed to find GM material in rice they bought in supermarkets. Since 2006, the European Union's testing authority has detected GM material in 218 batches of imported Chinese rice products, including 24 this year. There has been an uproar over the suspected leakage of rice from GM trials into the Chinese market. Several months ago, Chinese authorities introduced regulations requiring fields for GM rice-testing to be surrounded by tall fences and imposing severe penalties for selling GM rice illegally.

Chinese public opinion on GM foods is polarizing. Many scientists favor commercialization of GM crops while the public is becoming resistant. The Central China Agricultural University Professor who led development of the GM rice together with 60 academicians sent a letter to China's leaders in 2011 urging them to push ahead with commercialization of GM crops. They warned that slowing the approval process would seriously harm research and would be a "national mistake." Another scientist accused the letter-writing scientists of grandstanding. Days before the certificates were to expire, a food science professor at China Agriculture University who seems to be the government's anointed spokesman on food issues urged that commercialization of GM crops developed by China itself should not be delayed. News media, commentators, and a military general circulate rumors and conspiracy theories involving GMOs. Health-conscious Chinese consumers routinely victimized by unscrupulous businessmen and lax regulatory authority are receptive to any potential food scare and have been easily persuaded to jump on the anti-GMO bandwagon.To counter this trend, GM rice-tasting events were held in 20 Chinese cities in August. One young man participating in the GM-tasting testified that he once believed conspiracy theories but now eats GMOs with no worries.

An opinion piece in Yangcheng Daily, a Shenzhen newspaper, questioned why the Government let the GM rice safety certificates expire without any explanation. According to Yangcheng Daily, some experts say that fear of public opinion is preventing Government officials from acting on the GMO approvals. However, the anti-GMO tide of public opinion is itself generated by the public's lack of confidence in the Government's ability to ensure food safety, said the Yangcheng Daily article. The Yangcheng opinion writer suggests that slow approval is appropriate until there is public consensus. Pushing GM crops through without that consensus would further undermine public confidence. However, remaining silent and giving no explanation may elevate consumer fears by presuming that the Government must have evidence that GM crops are unsafe. Furthermore, said the Yangcheng Daily, the Government owes the public an explanation since so much has been invested in developing the crops.

The approval process has been opaque all along. The documents supporting the 2009 safety certificate approval were not released to the public until lawyers wrote to the Ministry of Agriculture in 2011 demanding publication. The documents were not released until July 2014.

China's GMO conundrum reflects the undermining of Chinese officialdom's attempt to construct a "modern" society by a rapidly-emerging "post-modern" critique in Chinese society.

Since Deng Xiaoping, Chinese officialdom has pursued a strategy of "modernization" which entails adopting the technology and the institutions that they think made Western countries rich--big, technocratic government; huge, sprawling companies; big banks; and sophisticated technology. These are what academics would call the trappings of "modernity." Until about a decade ago, China was one of the most enthusiastic proponents of GMO technology. One of Chinese agricultural officialdom's chief projects for decades has been to replace unimproved local crop varieties and animal breeds with improved varieties developed by big government research institutes and disseminated to farmers by big "leading companies."

However, the failure to modernize or reform institutions of governance in China has undermined the strategy by creating distrust of government, companies and technology. All of the big institutions--government, companies, research institutes, even farmer cooperatives--are still operated in the same way Chinese institutions have always by governed: by small coteries of powerful men, their family members, classmates, and other personal connections. The common people have no voice in the governance of institutions.

Moreover, the unique feature of communist party control and interlocking/interchangeable management between government and business means that regulatory authorities are more loyal to business operators than to the common people. Hence, regulators have often given a pass to friends in business on food safety and pollution matters.

The steady stream of food safety and pollution incidents has undermined public trust in both business and regulatory authority. The common people no longer trust the "modern" institutions and are vulnerable to any conspiracy theory that comes along. Thus, they are unlikely to accept any assurance by government or business that, say, genetically modified foods are safe to eat.

The lack of trust in "big business" and technocratic government--based on the belief that their interests are intertwined and are divergent from the interests of the general public--is exactly what is pushing Western societies into a post-modern food system that rejects GMOs and yearns to return to "local food," "heritage breeds," and chickens in the backyard--exactly the kind of subsistence agriculture that China is trying to get away from. This post-modern view of the food system is rapidly gaining traction in China and undermining the country's "scientific development" project.