Monday, October 3, 2016

China's GMO Fraud Problem

"The safety of transgenic foods is not determined by an auntie next door; the determination is made by professional organizations through experimental trials," intoned the deputy head of Hainan Province's agricultural department on September 9, 2016.

The official's remarks were made at the latest in a series of publicity events put on by Chinese agricultural officials to assure the public of the safety of transgenic agricultural products. The events are intended to ease consumer concerns about approval and wider dissemination of more transgenic crops in coming years.

The assurances of scientific rigor were undermined ten days later when a former Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences graduate student posted allegations that an elite testing center for transgenic crops falsified years of records to pass an audit to renew the center's accreditation (Chinese version here; Chinglish version here; Wall Street Journal version).
A lab for testing feed and animal materials in Chongqing, 2011.

Wei Jingliang, a doctoral student in animal genetics, had been assigned to maintain records at the "National Transgenic Testing Center" under the Academy's Institute for Livestock and Veterinary Research Center." He was ordered to fabricate records in 2015 when the center's leaders realized they had no records to show inspectors from the Ministries of Agriculture and Science and Technology for a triennial audit to maintain their accreditation as a national center for testing transgenic material. The center was supposed to retain samples of materials tested, records of reagents used in tests, records of instrument calibration, and staff qualifications. At a meeting in June 2015, the center's professor-supervisors told the staff there were no records because the lab was too busy with its daily work to keep records. All the records were fabricated during the month preceding the audit. Exams to establish the qualifications of staff were faked, and testing was routinely farmed out to other labs, Wei alleged.

Wei says he was handed a testing report by one professor last year and told to sign and stamp it, which he did. Several days later, he was reprimanded by another professor who is in charge of quality control in the lab for improperly using the official stamp. Wei also said he observed his professor presenting gifts to people who were auditors of the lab.

Mr. Wei said he pointed out privately to his professor that the falsification was wrong. The professor replied that it was necessary for the national strategy to maintain the lab as a "technology reserve." Wei's request to resign was refused last year, but he quit the program in April of 2016. He posted his allegations and a series of documents to verify their validity on a Chinese social media site in three tranches this month. Wei said he quit the program over frustration that fraud is rampant in research.

A terse investigation report by the Ministry of Agriculture on September 22 acknowledged illegal behavior by the testing center in preparing testing materials, record keeping, and employment, and the lab had violated personnel policies by substituting graduate students for skilled testing staff. The lab will be closed for six months for remediation work, and responsible staff have been strictly dealt with.

The allegations undermine the Hainan official's assurance that consumers can trust the scientific process to ensure the safety of transgenic crops. While the argument is sound--rigorous scientific testing should assure consumers--Mr. Wei's allegations reveal that Chinese laboratories do not in fact follow scientific procedures. Science is based on accurate, precise and truthful record-keeping and standardized procedures that facilitate replication of results. Without records there is no way to verify that equipment is well-calibrated, that technicians are properly trained, and that proper procedures were used. While there are no allegations that particular tests were falsified, the shoddy procedures described by Mr. Wei could lead to incorrect conclusions. The contracting-out of testing and substituting of unqualified staff alleged by Wei means that "an auntie next door" could very well be determining the safety of transgenic materials in China.

Authorities are also struggling with fraud down on the farm. On September 21, officials in Shaanxi Province revealed that they discovered genetically modified corn illegally growing in fields covering 3630.9 mu (598 acres) in two townships of Qingbian County. The GMO corn was detected by testing samples gathered in a spot check by local officials in August. Officials said they destroyed the corn.

In May, authorities discovered 2000 mu (330 acres) of illegal genetically modified corn seed had been discovered in an experimental plot in Xinjiang Autonomous Region. Officials said the corn had been brought into the country illegally from the United States, and traders had illegally sold the seeds. These are the latest in a series of such revelations in recent years.

An article in Legal Daily reveals that officials are debating criminalization of illegally growing GMOs.  a fine of 10,000 yuan ($1500) assessed in the Xinjiang case is not considered to be a strong deterrent. In the Shaanxi case, a local seed dealer was arrested and another suspect is being sought. However, the Shaanxi farmers were paid compensation of 1400 yuan per mu to offset their losses from destruction of the illegal grain. Legal Daily asserts that these are not isolated incidents.

The Ministry of Agriculture has a strict five-stage approval system that has only allowed six transgenic crops to be approved for commercial production. However, a Ministry official admitted to Legal Daily that there are hundreds of private and underground units engaged in seed research underway and the Ministry of Agriculture does not really know what R&D activities are underway and what organizations are doing it. There could be hundreds of organizations growing illegally imported genetically modified seed, according to the unnamed official.

One academic has criticized the government for lax regulation, pointing out that only administrative measures and guidance documents have been issued to govern transgenic agricultural products. The debate is weighing prospects for criminal sanctions for illegal GMO producers based on contamination of the environment, harm to public health, or harm to ecological resources.

China's GMO problem cuts to the heart of the China social-economic model. Can a prosperous economy be built on shoddy and fraudulent record-keeping? Are strict procedures, precise and accurate record-keeping, and qualified staff as important as shiny apparatus in making a laboratory "scientific"? Can Chinese consumers have confidence in any kind of testing or certification? What would it take to build such confidence?


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