Dec 19, 2013 01:33 PM

Gov't, Scientists Struggle to Root Out Opposition to GM Foods

(Beijing) – In July, 61 members of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) and the Chinese Academy of Engineering submitted a petition to the country's leaders asking that they begin promoting industrial cultivation of genetically modified (GM) rice as soon as possible.

The experts did not seek support from the public, and their names remain a secret. Information about the petition was only released three months later by Zhang Qifa, of the CAS. Zhang, dean of Huazhong Agricultural University's College of Life Sciences and Technology, made the announcement at a conference in the capital.

Zhang said that the petition stated that "the promotion of industrialized cultivation of GM rice can wait no longer, otherwise we will harm the national interest. The commercialization of GM food will be unable to develop, which will have an enormous impact on scientific research."

Zhang's research team obtained safety certifications for GM rice four years ago, meaning that the approval procedures for industrial cultivation should have begun long ago, but policymakers have been dragging their feet and permission has not been handed out yet. In another year, the safety certifications will expire.

This situation reflects the difficulty that the development of GM crops has faced in China.

In the 1990s, the government approved commercial cultivation of GM cotton. With policy support, domestically developed, insect-resistant GM cotton took over a domestic market that used to be dominated by the U.S. company Monsanto. Since then, however, the government has not approved the planting of any other GM crops.

"China's vacillating attitude toward genetically modified organisms (GMO) has caused the promotion of their application in China to come to a complete halt for years," Zhang said.

One of Zhang's team members and a professor at Huazhong Agricultural University, Lin Yongjun, said that the Chinese are world leaders in the research of GM rice, but the slow pace of industrialization is causing anxiety among the country's scientists.

Lin explained that a given type of GM rice must be replaced in a certain number of years. The current replacement cycle is about three to four years. The reason for this, said Lin, is that a highly vigorous variety this year might become less competitive next year or in a few years.

Policymakers are aware of the importance of GM technology. In February 2006, the State Council, the country's cabinet, listed the cultivation of new GM varieties alongside such major projects as the development of oil and gas fields, manned spaceflights and manufacturing large airplanes. On July 9, 2008, the State Council pledged to invest a total of 20 billion yuan in the development of new GMO varieties by 2020.

But to date the government still has not taken the most critical step: industrial cultivation. GMO efforts are limited to pilot programs in the hands of scientists. Lin Min, the director of the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences (CAAS) Biotechnology Research Institute, said that one of the reasons for this is widespread "anti-GMO" fervor.

Ke Bingsheng, president of China Agricultural University, said at a forum on rural development this year that popular opposition to GM food has reached the policymaking level and affected the operations of scientific research departments.

A Dirty Name

Opposition to GMOs began in Europe almost as soon as cultivation began. The attitudes of European regulators toward the planting and import of GMOs have fluctuated since. Beginning in the 1990s, in response to the growing popularity of environmental movements and a scare over mad cow disease, European food safety regulators were conservative about GMOs. In 1997, the European Union passed a series of "novel food regulations," demanding that any food product containing GMO materials be labeled as such. Beginning in 1998, the EU did not approve any new GMO products for sale in European markets.

In 2000, after years of arguing between the EU and representatives from the United States and Canada, the World Trade Organization decided that the EU's de facto ban on GMO products violated its charter, spurring the EU to change its stance. Leaders of European nations that have long been conservative regarding GMOs have recently come to be much more accepting of them.

Since 2007, the EU's approval process for GMO products has sped up every year. The EU has approved imports of over 20 varieties of GM corn, as well as several varieties of soybeans, sugar beets, potatoes and other crops.

Of all the organizations pushing the Chinese "anti-GMO" movement in the early years, the local chapter of international environmental group Greenpeace was the most powerful. Greenpeace argued against GMO technology in China on several levels, including by presenting the supposed risks to the environment, complaining about policy transparency and by exposing illegal cultivation.

In 2002, Greenpeace issued a report condemning insect-resistant cotton for increasing the numbers of pest insects. The report's drafting was presided over by a researcher for the Nanjing Institute of Environmental Sciences, Xue Dayuan. The government's late response to this report only exacerbated public concern.

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