Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Controversy on GMO Ban in China Province

A Chinese Province has banned planting genetically modified crops for five years. The ban has a complicated back story which includes another cynical manipulation of food safety hysteria to protect a province's soybean industry.

According to Xinhua News Agency, the ban was adopted this month as a revision of Heilongjiang's 4-year-old food safety regulations. The new regulation passed by the standing committee of the province's Peoples Congress stipulates that genetically modified food crops--specifically rice, corn, and soybeans--may not be planted in regions administered by the province starting May 1, 2017. It also bans the illegal production and marketing of genetically modified grain seeds, as well as illegal production, processing, and sale of food products containing GMOs. The regulation bans illegal imports or smuggling of GMOs. The regulation demands that genetically modified agricultural products and foods containing genetically modified material must be placed on specially-designated shelves or areas of retail stores or markets.

A Heilongjiang official involved in formulating the ban said the province supports research and development of genetically modified crops and does not oppose experimental trials, but the province thinks caution in the dissemination of genetically modified crops is "a wise choice" as long as there is "no accurate answer" regarding whether this technology is safe.

An unnamed agricultural official from the province said the genetically modified crops are not "green" food, so banning them gives more room for development of a "green food industry" and the ban "maintains food safety at the source," they said.

The Heilongjiang ban is controversial in China. Futures Daily praised Heilongjiang as a model for food safety regulation. According to Futures Daily, unnamed experts say the ban reflects the wishes of the public and should be a model for other provinces. Several other news media organs affiliated with the central communist party authorities, however, fired back with criticism of the province's ban.

Jinghua Shibao--a paper backed by Beijing propaganda authorities--criticized the Heilongjiang legislators who promulgated the ban for lacking scientific and legal knowledge. Jinghua said the ban is superfluous, as it duplicates existing laws. It also conflicts with the State Council's authority over agricultural GMOs, Jinghua said. The central government has set up a system to test and approve GMO crops. Jinghua also pointed out that the ban conflicts with the pledge to pursue commercialization of pest-resistant corn and herbicide-tolerant soybeans in the 13th five-year plan for science and technology innovation. Heilongjiang is China's largest producer of both corn and soybeans.

Jinghua Shibao further criticized the Heilongjiang GMO ban on scientific grounds. Jinghua quoted academicians from the Chinese Academy of Science who assert that transgenic technology used in breeding is not a food safety or environmental threat. One scientist pointed out that the Ministry of Agriculture, the United States FDA and Academy of Sciences have found no food safety concerns with GMOs. Jinghua commented that it is "worrying" that Heilongjiang legislators have insufficient understanding of science and technology.

In an article subtitled "Don't let the public be misled in science," Science and Technology Daily raised concerns that divided opinion on the GMO ban posed "endless worry for the development of transgenic technology" in China. This article quoted scientific experts who assert no conflict between genetically modified crops and "green" development.

Science and Technology Daily implied that the province's commercial concerns are the real motivation behind the ban when it quoted a Heilongjiang official who explained that the ban is designed to transform the province from a "big granary" to a "green granary," a "green garden," and a "green kitchen." The Heilongjiang official explained that this strategy is predicated on the concerns about GMO foods among Chinese consumers.

The Xinhua article on the Heilongjiang ban said the provincial statistics bureau found 91.5% of people surveyed in Heilongjiang during October opposed the production of genetically modified crops in the province.

"Do not let food safety concerns be kidnapped by local interests," another commentary on Guangming Net, suggested that food safety concerns mask the protection of local interests that lies behind the GMO ban in Heilongjiang.

Early in the last decade the Heilongjiang Province soybean industry began strategizing to use "non-GMO" and "green" attributes to differentiate their product from imported soybeans. Over the years, this business strategy morphed into a strategy of manipulating GMO fears to portray imported soybeans as "unsafe."

The first "soybean revival plan" was launched in Heilongjiang during 2001, the year China joined the WTO and about five years after China began importing soybeans in large volumes. That campaign sought to help local farmers compete head to head with imported soybeans mainly by subsidizing seeds for high-oil varieties used to produce oil and meal. A smaller proportion of seeds were for high-protein beans--used for food products like tofu and soybean milk.

In 2003, the Ministry of Agriculture released a plan focused on developing "high-oil soybean" advantaged areas, mainly in Heilongjiang. The focus on high-oil varieties probably reflected the fact that it was also (primarily?) intended to protect soybean oil processors in the province, most prominently a particular company affiliated with Heilongjiang's state farm system.

China's first regulations for management of genetically modified organisms were also issued in 2001. The 2003 high-oil soybean plan launched the strategy of taking advantage of GMO fears to differentiate non-GMO Heilongjiang soybeans as "safe." The plan advocated using the "food safety advantage" of Northeastern China's non-GMO soybeans to create a market niche among consumers around the world who worried about GMOs. One of the four recommendations of the 2003 plan to "strictly enforce the regulations on GMO labeling" used language nearly identical to the Heilongjiang official's explanation of this month's ban. The plan said that supervision of GMO products had to be strengthened to protect consumers' "right to know" and "right to choose" as long as the harmful effects on human health and the environment are not fully determined.
A 2004 article on strategy for Heilongjiang's soybean industry emphasized the advantage of non-GMO soybeans, recommending the industry follow public opinion and consumer psychology. This article recommended setting up specialized non-GMO soybean-producing districts to ensure that GMO beans do not mix with non-GMO beans. However, the authors were not themselves anti-GMO: they also called for staying abreast of world research on GMO soybeans.

Soybean imports doubled in spite of the plans and subsidies for Chinese soybeans. Chinese news media began to routinely refer to "GMO imported soybeans." They also adopted military metaphors such as "invasion" and "war." A 2007 article, "Restore the glory of the soybean industry in Heilongjiang and the entire country," warned that the surge of imported soybeans had reduced domestic production and prices and allowed foreign companies to take control of the vegetable oil industry. A 2009 article pronounced another soybean crisis in which "the industry seems weak but it holds the good non-GMO card."

In June 2013, Heilongjiang's soybean advocates played the GMO card in a big way by asserting on national television that imported soybeans cause cancer. In a program on China's Central TV network, the deputy director of the Heilongjiang soybean association claimed he had found a correlation in the incidence of cancer across provinces and the consumption of GMO soybean oil. The industry official produced no scientific study, instead turning the tables by demanding that proponents of GMOs produce studies proving they are safe. The soybean association official's evidence: "After working over 20 years in the grain industry, I have seen the possibility that GMO soybean oil and the probability of developing tumors are related." He cited a 2012 study by a scientist in France that was withdrawn due to poor experimental design and an unconventional release of the results calculated to generate sensational news media stories before any other scientists could refute them.
Heilongjiang soybean association official interviewed on TV
about his findings linking soybean oil consumption to cancer.

The soybean industry official said at the time, "Our association’s conclusion is that edible transgenic soybean oil can cause cancer and infertility in consumers. so GMO soybean oil should not be used for commercial consumption without findings that it is safe." This scared Chinese consumers accustomed to food safety scandals, and was followed by numerous other news media reports on the topic. The alleged GMO-cancer-infertility link became conventional wisdom for many Chinese citizens, yet soybean imports continued growing.

In January 2016, the soybean industry official repeated his assertion that imported GMO soybeans are unsafe and proclaimed that it was time for the country to take action. However, most of his comments were focused on his assertion that excessive soybean imports are a "powerful weapon for foreign control of the Chinese vegetable oil industry." The official emphasized that China needed to keep its non-GMO soybeans separate from GMO beans to prevent contamination because there is such great demand for non-GMO soybean protein used for foods in Japan, Korea, the United States and Southeast Asia.

Returning to the ban on GMOs announced this month, none of the articles quote the deputy director of the Heilongjiang soybean industry association even though he is normally quoted in nearly every news media article on the soybean industry. However, the Heilongjiang officials explaining why they promulgated the ban used language nearly identical to his, including the demand that safety of GMOs be proven before they are commercialized and referring to imported soybeans as a "powerful weapon."

A Heilongjiang legislative official quoted by Science and Technology Daily admitted:
"In fact, early on we worried that imported crops carried a GMO weapon. I saw on the internet that people in Europe claimed that GMOs caused tumors, although that was later refuted. But clearly these rumors have taken root."  
A science writer quoted in the same article said, "Anti-GMO [attitudes] persist despite refutation of the rumor." His assessment was that "the incident reflects a lot of problems," including insufficient knowledge of transgenic technology among local officials.

An economics professor at Beijing Technology University also quoted by Science and Technology Daily who has studied adoption of GMOs in agriculture for many years said,
"It is not hard to incite public opinion with bewitching rumors. It is easy for rumors to influence public policy when the public lacks correct knowledge and information."

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