Saturday, December 13, 2014

China Needs to Test Domestic Corn for GMOs

For more than a year, Chinese border officials have been rejecting shipments of corn containing any trace of unapproved genetically-modified strains. No GMO corn has been approved for planting inside China, but there are indications that production of unapproved GMO corn has quietly spread despite crackdowns over the past four years. If Chinese officials were really serious about keeping unapproved GMOs out of their food system, they would test domestic corn as well.

Chinese corn prices are more than double the price in the United States, but the GMO issue is a barrier to imports from all the leading exporters--the United States, Brazil and Argentina. Consequently, Chinese traders are scouring the globe for other cheap feed ingredients.

On November 18, 2014 AQSIQ, China's agency for inspection and quarantine, posted an online Q&A where Chinese trading companies peppered an AQSIQ official with dozens of questions about importing corn, sorghum, and barley. One trader was told that he can't import corn from France, and no, he can't process it into cattle feed and import it either. Another was told that he can only import corn from Russia if a Chinese company controls the Russian farm and processes it near the border. Traders asked where they could find approved corn-exporters from Ukraine and Thailand. A number were interested in importing sorghum from India and Australia, and barley from Ukraine and Australia--both for feed and for making liquor and beer. AQSIQ said that sorghum cannot yet be imported from Argentina because the risk assessment has not been completed [the final agreement for Argentine sorghum access was signed about a week after this Q&A].

One odd question posed to the AQSIQ official alleged that GMO corn is now widely planted in parts of Liaoning Province and is rapidly displacing non-GMO varieties. According to the "questioner," investigations in a number of Liaoning counties found that seed dealers surreptitiously sell genetically modified corn seeds, even though GMO corn is banned by the government. He claims that GMO corn sells for a better price because it can meet buyers' standards. In fact, he claims that government reserve depots will only buy GMO corn. He claims that these factors are pushing non-GMO corn completely out of the market in some places.

AQSIQ's response was to contact the State Food and Drug Administration or Ministry of Agriculture.

A blog post from July 2014--probably by the same person--goes into more depth on the Liaoning complaints. The post, "The investigation that got the premier's attention," alleges that seed dealers have been selling GMO corn seeds, while industry regulators ignored the practice due to their financial interests in seed companies. He visited Tai'an County in Liaoning where he was told seed dealers repackage GMO seeds as approved varieties. Some GMO seeds are sold surreptitiously directly to farmers. He names a number of varieties. Most are insect-resistant bt strains. The blogger worried that planting of GMO corn was on the verge of explosive growth.

The writer claimed that the vice governor of Liaoning received a report claiming that 70 percent of Liaoning's corn was GMO, yet the vice governor asserted this year that "Liaoning does not have a single grain of GMO corn."

"Why did the governor lie?" asked the blogger. He said dealers were secretly warned ahead of time of a crackdown. Nevertheless, three dealers were caught, but they were let off with small fines. The blogger dared officials to punish him for "telling the truth."

According to the blogger, when he visited Tai'an County no one would talk to him until his identity was confirmed and he agreed not to take photos. The frequent crackdowns announced by authorities suggest that GMO corn may in fact be widespread in China.

This month, a district of Liaoning Province was identified as a "model" for agricultural quality and safety which stipulates that officials crack down on fake, counterfeit, and genetically modified seeds. Crackdowns on GMO seed have been announced in a number of other localities in northeastern China.

During 2010, the Ministry of Agriculture banned four corn seed varieties from prominent seed companies and institutes that were illegally commercialized GMO strains. The strains had been declared as non-GMO when submitted for evaluation, and at that time MOA didn't require checking for GMO content if they were declared non-GMO.

The 2010 crackdown did not wipe out GMO corn seeds. In March 2014, a crackdown in Hainan found seven companies and institutes illegally growing GMOs, and six other suspected violators were still undergoing testing. Twelve of 15 GMO-positive samples were strains of corn (3 were cotton). Another article said 11 seed companies were growing GMO corn illegally in Hainan, including three from Henan Province, one from Liaoning, and one "well-known state-owned company." This was significant because Hainan is a center for seed breeding and propagation due to its sub-tropical climate.

Meanwhile, rumors and pseudo-science about GMOs spread among the Chinese public. There have been outlandish stories about GMO corn causing pigs to miscarry and killing rats in Shanxi Province, and causing men to become sterile in Guangxi Province. The Liaoning blogger said common people joke that they will stop eating meat next year since all the feed is GMO now. Many Chinese people think Americans don't consume GMOs; they export them to weaken the people of other countries. The cynical use of GMOs as a trade barrier on purported food safety concerns and the ambiguous approach to domestic use reinforces these fears.

If Chinese officials are so concerned about the hazards of consuming GMOs, they should test domestic corn for illegal strains with the same stringency used for imported corn. They will never do this, since they are also giving domestic corn a pass on known hazards like mycotoxins from moldy corn.

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