China may revise its regulations on labeling genetically-modified food, according to remarks by a Ministry of Agriculture official earlier this month. This appears to be part of the groundwork for a more pro-GMO approach in coming years.
The remarks were made at the fourth in a series of meetings held by the Ministry November 7, 2015 to educate news media about genetically modified organisms. The meeting gathered agricultural scientists who commented on the importance of keeping up with this technology and dispelled myths about genetically modified foods that have spread among the Chinese public. The meeting was reported by Beijing Youth News, a media organ of the communist party youth league. It appears to be a thrust to reshape public opinion as China pursues a more pro-GMO course for agriculture.
He Yibing, the head of the Ministry's scientific education office, said China's nearly 15-year-old regulations for labeling genetically modified foods are being considered for revision. One specific element is China's qualitative approach which demands that the presence of any genetically modified material whatsoever must be revealed on the label. He noted that other countries have quantitative thresholds--the European Union demands labeling if GM content exceeds 0.9 percent, for example. Mr. He speculated that China's approach may be the strictest in the world. Based on China's current approach, shipments or foods can be rejected if even a tiny trace of unapproved genetically modified material is detected, even if it entered the shipment or batch unintentionally.
The China party line is a balancing act of actively pursuing GMO research while maintaining a rigorous approval process that takes many years to navigate. He Yibing subtly pointed out that China has fallen from fourth in the world to sixth in production of GMO crops. He noted that the United States is the world leader and China is behind Brazil and Argentina. The only GMO crops produced commercially in China are cotton and papayas. Describing China's food security outlook as "grim," Mr. He insisted that China's development of genetic modification is "an objective necessity." He pointed to increasing imports of grain and cited statistics showing that China's consumption of grain far exceeds its production. He did not explicitly mention that China's deficit is filled by over 70 million metric tons of genetically modified soybeans from the United States and Latin America.
Mr. He was careful to emphasize that GMO research must be accompanied by strict oversight, but he also asserted that investigations of GMO safety are not cut-and-dried and must be regulated by officials with professional scientific qualifications.
Mr. He further explained that the labeling of GMOs is a matter of letting consumers exercise their "right to choose" and their "right to know." [It is unclear who determines which "rights" consumers are entitled to in China. Could these "rights" be revoked if the "food security" situation becomes dire enough to become a major concern for the State?]
The genetically-modified food labels are not related to the safety of the products, Mr. He insisted. By this, he seems to mean that labeling GMOs does not imply that they are unsafe to consume. The label alerts consumers to their presence so they can choose not to buy the product if they wish to avoid GMOs. China's lengthy five-step approval process evaluates the potential health effects, impacts on production and the environment through laboratory testing and multiple field trials.
Mr. He observed that the public debate in China on GMOs has become increasingly "rational" in recent years. However, the remainder of the meeting was devoted largely to agricultural scientists dispelling irrational objections to genetically modified foods.
Scientists debunked the widespread belief in China that Americans produce GMOs but don't eat them. One scientist noted that GMOs are in nearly all animal feed in the United States, so it's hard to avoid consuming genetically modified material indirectly if one eats meat. It was explained that the United States grows GMO products mainly for domestic consumption--not just to export--and about two-thirds of products in an American grocery store contain GMOs. A micro-blog posting from the U.S. embassy last summer was cited in support.
A Chinese-American professor explained that genetic modification occurs in nature all the time. He noted that genes of a bacteria naturally entered the genome of the sweet potato thousands of years ago. So if you eat sweet potatoes, he explained, you are eating GMOs.
Another professor said he would choose rice that is genetically-modified to resist pests if given the choice, because conventional rice is drenched in pesticides that are much more hazardous to consume. He explained further that research had shown that the drift of genetically modified rice genes into the environment was confined to a much smaller area than previously thought. The environmental impact is not serious because the bacterial gene is already in the soil, the scientist said.
Another research team reported reviewing over 9000 academic articles that evaluate the food and environmental safety of genetically modified organisms. They found that 88% of articles found no food safety concerns and 93% found GMOs are environmentally safe. The leader of the project speculated that chicken eggs would not be permitted in the Chinese market if they had to undergo the same rigorous testing as genetically modified crops because some people are allergic to eggs.