Food fight

By Song Shengxia Source:Global Times Published: 2013-3-28 0:03:01


A worker packages bottled cooking oil in a factory operated by COFCO Agri-Trading & Logistics in Jiujiang, Jiangxi Province in February. Photo: CFP
A worker packages bottled cooking oil in a factory operated by COFCO Agri-Trading & Logistics in Jiujiang, Jiangxi Province in February. Photo: CFP


When Yang Xiaolu, a resident in Beijing, lobbied the local education authorities to order schools in the city to stop using genetically modified (GM) soybean oil three years ago, he never expected the battle would be so hard.

Yang and a number of other parents formed a group in 2010 after they found that not only canteens at their children's schools but also most other schools and universities in Beijing use GM cooking oil.

Over the last three years, they have petitioned more than a dozen government agencies and organizations, including the Ministry of Agriculture (MOA), China Food and Drug Administration (CFDA) and the Beijing Municipal Commission of Education to try to stop schools and universities from using GM cooking oil.

They have had no success so far.

"I feel like a football being kicked among different government agencies," Yang said.

In February, Yang received a call from the CFDA, which told him that among 24 colleges and universities in Beijing, only three do not use GM cooking oil. But those who do use it buy it from legal channels, and it has the required quality safety labels, the CFDA said.  

The CFDA told him that GM cooking oil had been approved by the MOA and is safe for schools and colleges to use.

Widely used

"GM soybean oil is widely used in China. Many restaurants, including ones in upscale hotels also use it," a chef who declined to be named at China Foreign Affairs University told the Global Times.

The chef said he uses the GM oil at the university canteen, but admitted that he uses non-GM peanut oil at home.

The United Purchasing Association of College Mess (UPACM) is in charge of purchasing food for universities in Beijing, including cooking oil.

"The association only provides a platform for universities in Beijing. The final say over which company's product to buy still lies with these universities," said Wu Lan, director of UPACM.

"We keep opportunities open to all bidders who offer products that are approved by the food safety authorities," Wu said.

Beijing Jingyu Nutritional Food and Beverage Management Student Services Center is in charge of supplying cooking oil for primary and high schools in Beijing. A staff member at the center refused to comment on whether all the cooking oil they supply to schools is GM oil.

"There is more GM food in China than you can imagine. Bread, cakes, biscuits and many other snacks contain traces of GM soybean oil," said Chen Yiwen, an expert on GM food and natural disasters at the Risk Analysis Council (RAC) of the China Association for Disaster Prevention.

In major supermarkets, GM cooking oil is labeled and generally much cheaper. A five-liter bottle of GM soybean oil costs on average between 40 yuan ($6.38) and 50 yuan, one-third less than non-GM soybean oil. 

"It is a fact that people all over the country are eating food cooked with GM soybean oil as 99 percent of school canteens and most restaurants use it due to its low cost," said Xue Dayuan, a professor with the Life and Environment Science Institute at Minzu University of China in Beijing.

Part of the reason for the wide use of GM soybean oil is the continuous decline in soybean output in major production areas such as Northeast China's Heilongjiang Province and increased imports of cheaper soybeans.

China produces around 13 million tons of soybeans annually, but the demand exceeds 70 million tons. The country imported 58.38 million tons of soybeans in 2012, the majority of which are from GM crops.

The oil yield of GM soybeans is higher than that of non-GM soybeans, with the former at around 21 percent compared to 17 percent for non-GM soybeans, Xue said.

Safe or not?

GM foods are produced from plants whose DNA is altered through genetic engineering techniques. GM crops require fewer pesticides than conventional farming.

In November 2009, the MOA issued a production safety certificate for two varieties of GM rice and one of GM corn, the first approval of GM food products in China. Since then, the MOA has approved other GM crops including tomato, papaya and potato.

As in other countries and regions, there has been a heated debate in China over the safety of GM food.

Campaigners point out that no GM products are allowed for foods specially prepared for leaders and big events such as the Olympic Games. They also believe that those who support GM food are motivated by commercial interests.

"GM food has already formed an industrial chain and consumers can hardly avoid it. Many people have a stake in the GM food chain and the chain is like dominos: If one of the dominos falls, the others will all fall," said Chen from the RAC.

Gu Xiulin, a professor at Yunnan University of Finance and Economics who specializes in rural development, is another active campaigner against GM foods.

According to Gu, GM soybean oil is extracted with a type of benzene. The residue of benzene in the soybean oil has been proved to be toxic and could lead to infertility if consumed by humans.

"GM materials exist in protein, and edible oil does not contain protein after being processed. So GM materials cannot be detected in the oil and it is thus safe to consume," said Xue from Minzu University of China.

"As for GM foods in general, it will take time to prove whether they are safe or not," he said.

The MOA was not immediately available for comment when contacted by the Global Times by press time.

On March 9, during the annual sessions of the country's top legislature, Minister of Agriculture Han Changbin said China has a set of rules governing the study, testing and application of GM products and will assess their safety and issue approval according to the rules. 

"Since the safety of GM foods is still being debated, parents and children should at least have the right to choose what cooking oil is used. Our children should not be treated as guinea pigs," said Lu Ying, father of a 16-year-old high school student and a member of the anti-GM soybean oil group.

Lu and a number of other parents last year persuaded the owner of a restaurant close to their children's school to sell meals made from non-GM cooking oil to their children at a slightly higher price. But the owner closed it early this year, due to high costs.

Now, Lu's son is taking a lunchbox to school, as it is the only choice he has.

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