Economic power China is not known for its quality control of products. In fact, especially when it comes to food production, it’s really not possible for the country to claim any of its agricultural products are “organic,” just because the air, soil and water over much of Chinese farmland is so polluted with heavy metals.
But it could be the country is trying to clean up its act somewhat.
As reported by the Financial Times, agriculture authorities in the largest grain-producing province in China have implemented a five-year ban on genetically modified crops, which is a blow to the central government’s efforts to transform the country into a global GMO-producing powerhouse.
Even though the central government has spent billions of dollars on food biotechnology, Beijing currently does not allow the cultivation of any GMO crops with the exception of cotton and papaya, due to extreme suspicion and scrutiny from consumers over the perceived health risks.
The five-year ban, which was recently announced by officials in China’s northeastern Heilongjiang province, begins in May and applies to staple crops like rice, corn and soybeans.
China wants to become a global GMO power
“The black soil of Heilongjiang and its biodiversity needs special protection,” state-run China News Service reported, citing provincial officials.
The decision comes following plans published by the central government in August in which Beijing said it would begin to develop specific GMO crops that included corn and soybeans for the very first time. That announcement followed President Xi Jinping’s call for his country to “dominate high points of GMO techniques” that he mentioned during a speech released in 2014.
The $44 billion bid by Chemchina for Switzerland’s Syngenta, a GMO giant, is also being viewed as an attempt to bolster China’s global GMO prowess, despite the fact that in the U.S. and throughout Europe opposition to genetically-modified crops has been steadily increasing for years.
The five-year ban was prompted by a survey of the people which showed that more than 90 percent of respondents in the Heilongjiang province objected to the growing of GMO crops, the official Xinhua news agency reported. In addition, the ban follows a report by the global environmental organization Greenpeace earlier this year, which found there was rampant and widespread illegal use of GMO crops among agricultural operations in neighboring Liaoning province.
“Consumers in China, having experienced a litany of food scandals, are understandably distrustful of regulation round food and agriculture, and this extends to a distrust of genetically modified foods,” Sam Geall, a research fellow at the University of Sussex’s Science Policy Research Unit, told FT.
Other experts told Chinese state media that the ban was in direct conflict with the central government’s efforts to become a global GMO producer.
No doubt anti-GMO activists will seek to make the ban permanent, and nationwide
“The local government lacks foresight as it has rejected any possibility of developing GM technologies in China,” said Lu Baorong, a biology professor at Fudan University in Shanghai, in an interview with the Global Times newspaper.
However, Elrand Ek, an agricultural researcher at China Policy, a think tank based in Beijing, said that the five-year ban is important because it can be used as a tool for the central government to gain the public’s trust regarding any future moves to expand GMO crop development and production. Also, the Heilongjiang decision is important “because they would like to protect [the province’s] advantage as a producer of non-GMO soybean for the domestic and international market.
Currently China does allow for the importation of GMO soybeans, but only for use in animal feed. Ek said the ban is mostly about the protection of local produce and gaining a “comparable advantage” in response to the increase in GMO imports from the United States and other countries.
Still, there will be some agricultural and environmental experts who will no doubt be pushing to make the ban permanent and, perhaps, spread it to all of China, as it should be.