GM Food Debate in China

Last August, Peng Guangqian, a People’s Liberation Army major general and deputy secretary-general of China’s National Security Policy Committee, claimed that China’s growing imports of genetically modified food was a western conspiracy that would threaten China’s security.

However, with Chinese agriculture facing difficulty in the campaign to feed its 1.3 billion people, the country’s agricultural authorities are turning increasingly to the domestic development and importation of genetically modified crops, a controversial decision in a country where few trust even the current conventional food supply. Currently, the country is the world's importer of GM soybeans, most of which come from the US. It has become one of the leading countries that promote biotechnology development.

That hasn’t meant there is trust. In December, Chinese authorities announced they had blocked US corn imports for violating a ban on certain types of GM foods, returning 545,000 tonnes of corn in 2013 because of the presence of MIR162, an insect-resistant strain that is permitted in the U.S., Japan and Europe but not approved by China's agriculture ministry.

Doubts over corruption have also been raised. Professor Zhang Qifa, proponent of GM food petition, has been found receiving funds with his team from the American GM food company Monsanto, which brought GM soybeans to China since 2009. Li Jiayang, the Deputy Minister of Agriculture, reportedly served on the biotech consulting committee of DuPont, a US-based international technology development company advocating GM food, from June 2007 to March 2012. In March 2012, DuPont was pressured to remove Li’s name.

Nonetheless, as the supply of Chinese crops produced by traditional farming seems unable to address the growing demand, there is a growing demand for more extensive commercial production of GM food. In spite of this, it is not unreasonable for the Chinese government to drag its feet for authorizing commercialization since there is so much uncertainty over GM technology – not to mention conventional products that unscrupulous food producers deliver, including fox meat for pork and adulterated milk products spiked with melamine. Thus, commercialization might sound impractical without a reconfiguration of the government regulatory system, a more effective labeling scheme and information transmission system as well as a more forceful legal supervision mechanism.

At the moment, there seems little oversight on who is creating what in the laboratories

Chinese agricultural authorities have carried out substantial research on developing genetically modified (GM) food technology, in particular, transgenic crops e.g. rice, wheat, corn and soybean. Scientists, however, have criticized the existing regulations as too restrictive for a favorable environment for developing biotechnology and pressed for expanding commercialization crops, while environmental organizations like Greenpeace have raised concerns about the potential risks of GMOs. Hence, the Ministry of Agriculture, as the main government agency overseeing GM food in China, has been caught in a crunch from both sides.

Indeed, the current institutional framework for regulating agricultural biotechnology is complex at both national and local levels, where overlapping or conflicts of interests might easily occur. For instance, both the agriculture ministry and the General Administration for Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine are in charge of imports and exports of GM food.

In addition, there is lack of an effective management system in guarding GM food safety, coupled with limited information transparency. The GMO Biosafety Committee under the ministry has done little publicity or consultation regarding safety. Although China has invested heavily in genetic engineering research, better coordination among different departments and consolidation of agricultural biotechnology programs are still needed to dispel public fears about GM food.

Moreover, there have been criticisms over delayed commercialization. According to the Huazhong Agriculture University in Wuhan, Hubei province, although two of their GM rice varieties were granted safety certificates in 2009, the ministry has still not promulgated any specific proposals for commercial cultivation of GM rice and further field experiments are still in progress as reported by state-owned Xinhua News Agency.

The existing legal supervision for GM food is rather weak. Although the State Council’s Food Safety Committee was established to coordinate the work of various regulatory authorities, its duties are not clearly enshrined in the Food Safety Law. As a result there have been incidents like one in Hunan in 2012, when Tufts University from the US conducted a joint Sino-US test on genetically modified “Golden Rice” on a group of children aged six to eight without prior notification of the nature of the test. Three Chinese officials involved in the test were then sacked for violating regulations, academic integrity and scientific ethics.

Since 2002, China has adopted a mandatory labeling system for agriculture GMO, stating that products containing GM ingredients must be labeled clearly before being sold. Many scholars have praised this, as China is the only developing country promoting a mandatory labeling scheme for governing GMO products.

However, there are loopholes in its law enforcement. For instance, in 2003, a Shanghai consumer sued Nestle for not labeling GM ingredients in its products and when the Municipal Agricultural Bureau of Beijing conducted random sampling and inspected 22 brands of soybean oil and soybean meal containing GMO, it discovered that none of them was labeled.

In fact, standardization of GM food labels should be set with stringent rules stipulating how and where the labels should be placed on the products to prevent any fraud by manufacturers or illegal sales in the markets. Besides, unlike EU countries, China has no traceability mechanisms to monitor the supply chain in order to look over which producers have used the GMO raw materials. This undoubtedly weakens the law enforcement process.

Given that there are numerous food industries in China, implementation of such a system would be hard. Nevertheless, the central government could start with large manufacturers, revising the policies,and then could extend the scope to smaller industries. Meanwhile, the MOA should also shoulder the responsibility of disclosing more guidelines and information, especially the review process and a set of safety standards. All these could enhance accountability.

(Joyce Xu is a freelance writer based in Hong Kong)