Though economic development has forced China to give up many old prerogatives, the country has stubbornly clung to a philosophy of agricultural self-sufficiency. Leaders still maintain the old pre-reform-era quota of growing 95% of the country’s edible grains (though production has sometimes dipped below that level in recent years). Their steadfast adherence to the quota is even more remarkable given that China has only 7% of the world’s arable land, a percentage that will keep shrinking over the next decade due to urbanization and environmental degradation.
The insistence that China can feed itself stems to some extent from a faith in the potential of genetically modified food. China has intensively researched GM foods since the 1980s. In total, the country has approved 37 genetically modified products for sale and import, including strains of canola, tomatoes, cotton, maize and rice.
In the coming decade, GM production is set to accelerate. Beijing plans to pump US$3.14 billion into the sector before 2020.
Feeding the world
The potential benefits of GM crops are significant: They can be coaxed into adopting many positive traits, including higher yields and greater resistance to infection and drought. Clive James of the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications estimates that GM rice alone will boost the incomes of 100 million Chinese farmers by US$4 billion a year.
Many people – including officials at the US Food and Drug Administration – argue that genetically modified foods are safe for human consumption. But there are some studies that cast this into doubt.
Research by the World Health Organization indicates that GM foods have the potential to provoke allergic reactions, transfer harmful genes to human body and crossbreed with other plants. According to a 2009 report by the American Academy of Environmental Medicine, several animal studies indicated serious health risks associated with consuming GM foods, including infertility, immune problems and accelerated aging. Even the inventor of China’s GM rice strain, Yuan Longping, argued that it will take two generations to confirm that GM foods are entirely safe.
A Greenpeace survey of 1,300 Chinese suggests that concerns about GM foods are prevalent among urban youth: 60% of the respondents, all aged between 18 and 35, opposed GM foods. For the rest of the country, genetic modification is still a murky and somewhat ominous subject. To dispel this fear, China’s Ministry of Agriculture has stepped up its efforts to publicize the safety of GM foods, including a booklet published in June called “100 Questions About GM Crops.”
In the meantime, China’s agricultural lobby has occasionally used this resistance to GM foods to its advantage. In 2010, COFCO rejected 5.4 tons of GM corn imported from the US because the strain was not among the 11 types authorized in China. Seed company Monsanto has also complained about a lack of consistent policies from the government.
“The ministry [of agriculture] advocates the commercialization of GM foods in China, but at the same time bans it from our tables,” activist Yang Fangzhou told the Global Times.
Either way, illegal genetically modified rice may already be widespread in China. As early as 2006 and 2007, European officials reported that products made with illegal genetically modified rice were being exported from China to the EU. In 2010, Greenpeace said that it had found GM rice being planted without government intervention in Hubei and Hunan province, as well as tainted samples at processing enterprises that source their rice from China’s state reserves.
These examples suggest it will be hard to hold back the tide of genetic modification. With 1.34 billion mouths to feed, Beijing is unlikely to try.