Who's afraid of a little genetically engineered American corn?
Chinese quarantine officers apparently. They've recently blocked at least six batches (more than 180,000 tons) of American corn from entering China, citing the presence of genetically-modified strain of the grain that the Chinese government hasn't (yet) approved for import. The impact has been notable: In recent days U.S. corn futures fell, in part out of fear of further Chinese enforcement action.
So far there's been little coverage of the blocked shipments in the Chinese news media. (The general-interest news junkie with a penchant for corn news is a rare breed, no pun intended.) Yet interest in whether genetically-modified organisms should be a part of the food supply has long generated passionate public debate in China, often exceeding the arguments that have taken place in the U.S. and -- unusually -- setting powerful Chinese government officials and entities against each other. So, for example, the Ministry of Agriculture is a GMO proponent, while quarantine officials, at least this fall, are opponents.
There is a serious divergence between the politics and the reality on the matter. Despite the occasional official anti-GMO rhetoric, in actuality China imports large volumes of genetically-modified soybeans, much from the U.S. (where most of the soybeans are genetically modified) -- and has been doing so for years. Meanwhile, China has developed and commercialized domestic varieties of genetically-modified tomatoes, papayas and sweet peppers (as well as cotton and petunias). In the case of food, China requires labeling of GMOs, though the labels have their limits, such as at restaurants. As a result, many Chinese consumers underestimate the volume of GMOs in their food, and thus, the debate often lags behind actual situation in China's kitchens and pantries.
Nevertheless, populist suspicion of GMOs flares up regularly, often without much of a discernible reason. In May 2010, I attended a recycling conference in Hangzhou; in an aside during his keynote speech, Lang Xianping, a celebrity economist based in Hong Kong, informed the crowd that "American agricultural conglomerates are actively trying to sterilize young Chinese males with genetically modified rice," as I reported in Recycling International magazine's August 2010 issue.
It was a jarring claim -- but not an unusual one. The connection between GMOs and male infertility comes up on a regular basis in Chinese media. In June, the Heilongjiang Soybean Association (an organization that promotes locally-grown, non-GMO soy), caused a national uproar by releasing a report suggesting that genetically-modified soy-based oils cause cancer. The evidence was weak, but the fact that the claim was made by a professional association gave it credence, coverage and opportunities for further explanation. In a subsequent interview, the association's president claimed that "transgenic soybean oil consumers are more likely to suffer from cancer and infertility."
For some Chinese GMO opponents, the possibility of mass infertility transcends public health and becomes a matter of national-security. In late August, Peng Guangqian, deputy secretary-general of China's National Security Policy Committee, and a major general in the People's Liberation Army, wrote an op-ed for the nationalist state-owned Global Times newspaper. In it, he asked eight questions about GMOs, with the last invoking a bleak image of a corn-fed genocide:
"Since the founding of the New China, no enemy has conquered us by force. However, biological weapons have the ability to kill without bloodshed, and thus run the risk of causing us to lower our vigilance. GM crops could become just such weapons, and the consequences will be far worse than what the Opium Wars wrought. We must not be naive. Shall China develop a biological defense program now?"
So far, no prominent voices have seemed to emerge to second this call. In fact, the pro-GMO Ministry of Agriculture has gone out of its way to dispute Peng's claims; after his commentary, the ministry ran a remarkably detailed rebuttal in Q&A form with a government GMO expert on its website. The public nature of the rebuke was unusual for China, where the ruling Communist Party prefers to maintain a united image on matters of policy.
More importantly, the criticism seemed to wake up GMO proponents. This fall, state media outlets kicked off what has turned into a propaganda offensive and de facto GMO public-education campaign designed to convince Chinese consumers of the benefits of GMOs. Unlike some of its strident opponents, the campaign is eminently reasonable. "We should respect the right to question and guard the right to refuse transgenic food," wrote Xu Xiaoming for the Beijing Youth Daily on Oct. 21. "Supporters can eat it without concern, while opponents can insist on their own choices."
Still, there remains substantial skepticism of GMOs both in China's state-owned media, and among bloggers and microbloggers. Much of this suspicion isn't merely grounded in fear of technology, but rather a reasonable fear that China's pathetically inadequate food-safety system will fail to protect from rogue GMOs, just as it's failed to protect from rat sold as lamb. "To a large extent," wrote the Lanzhou Evening News on Nov. 11. "The distrust of genetically modified food really indicates a lack of confidence in our regulatory system."
On Sina Weibo, the country's most popular microblogging platform, populist-flavored doubt of the motives of pro-GMO officials runs high, with some microbloggers suggesting that if officials like GMOs so much, they can serve as glorified tasters. "We need powerful propaganda," tweeted Ren Xiang, a popular Sina Weibo voice, on Saturday. "For example, government department canteens can be the first to serve them."
Considering how widespread GMOs already are in China, it might behoove government officials to start examining their tomatoes a little more closely, anyway. That pervasiveness, in fact, is what makes the anti-GMO justification for blocking the U.S. corn shipments so suspect in the first place. Yes, the strain of corn the Chinese claim is in those shipments has not yet been approved by the Chinese government. But Bloomberg News and Reuters are reporting that politics and trade tensions -- and not human health -- may be the real cause of the anti-GMO zeal expressed by China's quarantine officials. If so, it's a cynical but politically adept effort at pleasing a Chinese public skeptical of the government's commitment to food safety without actually doing much about it.
(Adam Minter, the Shanghai correspondent for the World View blog, is the author of "Junkyard Planet," a book on the global recycling industry.)
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.
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