Tuesday, March 17, 2015

China Ag Official Defends GMOs

An agricultural official observed that no food is risk-free in the latest barrage launched by Chinese officials in their campaign to reassure the public about the safety of genetically modified foods.

On March 6, 2015, following a meeting of top communist party officials in Beijing, former Vice Minister of Agriculture Niu Dun (he has been selected as China's new representative to the FAO in Rome) explained the Ministry of Agriculture's approach to GMOs in an interview with a Beijing newspaper.

Niu gave three objectives for GMOs: to maintain food security by increasing the volume of crops produced; to improve resistance to drought, low temperature, insects, and disease; and to give foods nutritional value desired by consumers.

On the value to consumers, Niu deftly gave an example calculated to win approval of China's female population (the key food decision-makers in families and perhaps also the leading GMO skeptics). Niu casually speculated that grains and vegetable oils might be engineered to contain increased unsaturated fatty acids that could improve the complexion of skin for China's beauty-conscious women and help them look younger.

Niu then walked his comments back by admitting that the only tangible progress so far is in engineering resistance to insects, disease and weather extremes. He said genetic modification to increase output and quality of crops is just a "pleasant thought" for the future.

When asked about the safety of GMOs, Niu replied, "We have not found any foods or other items that are 100 percent risk-free, so we need a lot of experimentation and data [to evaluate their safety]."

China's support for GMOs reflects speculative concern that China could be left behind if it doesn't keep up with this path-breaking direction in research. Niu described GMOs as a major opportunity and possibility. He urged listeners to take the long view: "Future generations will judge [this] generation's efforts and achievements." Niu said, "All we want is an advanced thing, to maximize advantages, and avoid becoming disadvantaged."

Niu then moved on to the labeling issue. He argued that genetically modified products must be labeled to protect the consumer's "right to know" and "right to choose." Niu asserted that consumers have the right to decide for themselves whether to consume GMOs. No one can force you.

Niu then launched into a confusing response to concerns that GMO-labeling will increase costs, emphasizing that labels are demanded by the law. But he also claims that labeling is a cost voluntarily borne by those who want to produce GMOs. He worries about ensuring that people who want to consume non-GMO foods have the right to do so.

[Using this logic, shouldn't there also be a label to indicate that foods are "non-organic" to protect consumers who only want to consume organic food? That would be absurd since we assume food is not organic unless it is labeled as such.]

The Chinese approach appears to presume that genetically modified crops will be a niche market. Usually GMOs become predominant.

A week after Niu's comments, a delegation from Brazil's seed association came to Beijing to request that China speed up its lengthy approvals for genetically modified crops. According to the article, 93% of Brazil's soybeans and 82% of its corn is genetically modified this year.

Over 90% of U.S. soybeans and corn are genetically modified as well. After China approved genetically modified pest-resistant cotton, it was adopted by nearly all farmers outside of Xinjiang where there are no bug problems. There are rumors that Chinese farmers are already planting genetically modified crops even though they are not approved. The Ministry of Agriculture just announced that they will start testing domestic crops for GMOs.

In February, one of China's top rural policy advisors--and a long-time GMO proponent--pointed out that China imported 71 million metric tons of soybeans in 2014 and probably all of them were genetically modified.

Chinese officials may be interested to know that humans themselves are genetically modified. This week's Economist magazine points out that human beings have at least 145 genes acquired from other species.

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