Sino-US deal may lead to more biotech imports, but Chinese public still mistrustful

By Zhang Yu Source:Global Times Published: 2017/5/24 18:42:40

○ A new trade deal between China and US may expedite Chinese imports of US GM seeds

○ Exploring GM technology is on China's national agenda, but has met opposition from the Chinese public

○ China is trying to ease public concerns over GM technology through a publicity drive

A customer considers buying oil made from genetically-modified soybeans in a supermarket. Photo: CFP

China has some of the world's toughest regulations on the import of genetically-modified (GM) products. Its review process for new biotech crops is slow and strict, and over the years, many global biotech companies eager to export their products to China have complained that by setting tough barriers for GM crops, the country is delaying the commercialization of these products and stymieing international trade.

But a recent trade deal between China and the US has been seen by many in the industry as a positive signal that might expedite the import of GM seeds in future. According to the deal, which was among the fruits of Chinese President Xi Jinping's April visit to the US, China promised to evaluate eight genetically modified crops from the US by the end of this month.

Taking a look

According to the initial results of the 100-Day Action Plan of the US-China Comprehensive Economic Dialogue released by both countries, China's National Biosafety Committee will hold a meeting by the end of May to conduct science-based evaluations of all eight pending US biotechnology product applications to assess the products' safety.

These eight applications are not new. Many of them have already been held up in China's strict review system for up to five years, including herbicide-tolerant corn, soybean and alfalfa varieties from Monsanto, Reuters reported. Other products awaiting approval include some made by DuPont Pioneer and Syngenta, according to Reuters.

China has been approving fewer and fewer GM crops in recent years. According to the website of the Ministry of Agriculture, China only approved the import of one GM crop in 2016, a soybean trait called Bayer FG72.

This is considerably fewer than the 16 GM crop imports it approved in 2015 and 20 it approved in 2014. Most of the approved crops are from large biotech companies such as Monsanto, Syngenta and Bayer.

According to Chinese law, all genetically modified crops need to obtain approval to enter the Chinese market. Although China has totally banned the planting of genetically modified staple food crops for human consumption, it allows the import of GM crops for animal feed and industrial use. 

That the eight applications are mentioned in the agreement shows that the US has invested great effort in pushing China in this area. "There might be no changes made to the process for evaluating the eight biotechnology products under the agreement, but mentioning them in the agreement underscored the need of the US industry for China to complete the safety assessment process as soon as possible after years on the waiting list," Zhang Xiaoping, China country director at the US Soybean Export Council, said in a press conference last week.

Lu Baorong, a professor of life sciences at Fudan University and member of China's National Biosafety Committee, said the meeting mentioned in the agreement has yet to be held, but denied that US GM crops will receive any favorable treatment.

"The committee meets at least twice a year during which we review all domestic and foreign applications. The reviews are carried out under the guideline that the products have to meet China's safety standards. We will not hold a meeting especially for US-imported GM crops, or open our doors to them for political reasons," he told the Global Times.

Photo: Li Hao/GT

Food fears

But the news was read differently in China, especially among anti-GM activists who have been strongly opposing the use of GM crops for years.

"Why are the Chinese authorities making such a huge concession in China-US relations by importing US GM crops? … Chinese scientists should do independent research rather than letting a so-called biosafety committee discuss and approve information provided by the US authorities. This shows a lack of concern (about foreign GM technology)," one netizen commented on the news on Utopia, a famous leftist website. Many Chinese leftists believe that GM food is a plot that Western countries use to physically weaken Chinese people.

Chen I-wan, an online activist against GM food, told the Global Times, "Under the current situation, the Ministry of Agriculture may further relax their reviews of new GM crop applications from companies such as Monsanto, Bayer and Syngenta. But this will spark fiercer, broader resistance from the public against the import of GM crops and GM food."

Much to the worry of these GM haters, China is already reliant on imported GM soybeans. In 2015, China imported 82 million tons of GM soybeans, accounting for 80 percent of its total grain imports. China is also the largest importer of GM soybeans produced in the US. 

"China's attitude to GM imports has remained quite unchanged in the past few years. It's been importing a lot of GM soybeans. The reason why it isn't approving new imports is that the applicants failed to provide enough material for reviews," Luo Yunbo, a professor of food science at China Agricultural University, told the Global Times.

But Yan Jianbing, a professor specializing in crop genetic improvement at Huazhong Agricultural University, believes the decision on whether or not to import US GM crops is more of a trade issue. "I think it's mainly a trade issue. Both countries know that these products have no safety problems," he told the Global Times.

Amid this discussion, the Chinese government has been trying to bolster domestic GM technology. In a central rural work conference in 2013, President Xi stated that Chinese scientists should be bold in research and innovation and dominate the high ground in GM technology, rather than leaving China's GM agricultural market to foreign companies.

According to China's 13th 5-year plan (2016-2020), China will strengthen its research and development of GM cotton, corn and soybean so as to assure China's food safety and technological advancement.

"The attitude of China's current administration toward GM technology is more positive than before," Professor Yan said.

Changing attitudes

But the anti-GM sentiment among the Chinese public has been a hurdle in the country's attempt to develop and apply its biotechnology.

Last December, the provincial government of Northeast China's Heilongjiang Province, the nation's top grain producing region, for example, prohibited the cultivation of genetically modified crops, including GM corn, rice and soybeans after 91.5 percent of respondents to a survey conducted in the province raised objections to GM crops. The decision later triggered criticism, with China's agricultural experts arguing the province showed a lack of foresight.

China has been trying to change the public's view on GM crops through the media. China recently invited Mark Lynas, a British journalist and environmental activist who went from being a GM hater to a supporter in 2013, to speak in Chinese universities. Many mainstream Chinese media outlets covered Lynas' story. In an interview with a Chinese website, Lynas said that China's anti-GM activists claim that they are against GM crops because of their concern for China's national interest, and yet most of their views are imported and their theories are outdated.

China's most famous opinion leader against GM food, Cui Yongyuan, a former television anchor, has recently come under attack for opening an online shop that sells expensive food which he claims is safe and organic. The high prices that he charges has raised doubts over his motivation behind his anti-GM campaigns. "Only rich people can afford the organic food you sell, is that how you are attempting to improve China's food safety? Or do you simply want to profit?" one netizen commented.

In the meantime, the Ministry of Agriculture has invited Tsinghua University and five other organizations to conduct a nationwide poll on the public's understanding and acceptance of GM crops, as well as a 5-year project on how to explain GM technology development and its risks to the public.

Scientists say importing more foreign GM crops is inevitable, and yet the key to solving China's food demand is to develop China's own biotechnology. "More imports will definitely put pressure on China's agricultural market. China's agricultural products have no advantage in global competition. Part of this can be attributed to China's growing cost of labor, but China's reluctance to use new technology such as GM technologies in agriculture is also an important reason," Yan said.

Professor Lu said, "We're lagging behind in biotechnology, so we have to import things. The only thing we can do is to develop our own technology."

Newspaper headline: Growing GMO

Posted in: IN-DEPTH

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