OF THE many thousands of usually small protests that break out in China every year, few relate to national policy. Many consider the risk of challenging the central government too great. But the entrance to the agriculture ministry is a gathering spot for occasional demonstrations. Their complaints are about an issue dear to the ministry: genetically modified (GM) crops. At one protest this year, a group chanted slogans calling for the eradication of “traitors” who support GM food. Debate over the technology is escalating, putting the government in a bind.
Public unease about genetic modification is common around the world. In China, alongside rising concerns about food safety, it has taken on a strongly political hue. Chinese anti-GM activists often describe their cause as patriotic, aimed not just at avoiding what they regard as the potential harm of tinkering with nature, but at resisting control of China’s food supply by America through American-owned biotech companies and their superior technology. Conspiracy theories about supposed American plots to use dodgy GM food to weaken China abound online.
They are even believed by some in the government. In October an official video made for army officers was leaked on the internet and widely watched until censors scrubbed it. “America is mobilising its strategic resources to promote GM food vigorously,” its narrator grimly intoned. “This is a means of controlling the world by controlling the world’s food production.”
Peng Guangqian, a retired major-general and prominent think-tanker, echoed these sentiments in an article published by official media in August. He said America might be setting a “trap”. The result, he said, could be “far worse than the Opium War” between Britain and China in the 1840s that Chinese historians regard as the beginning of a “century of humiliation” at the hands of foreign powers.
China already uses plenty of GM products. More than 70% of its cotton is genetically modified. Most of the soyabeans consumed in China are imported, and most of those imports are GM (often from America). The technology is widely used for growing papayas. The government wants to develop home-grown GM varieties and has spent heavily on research, eager to maintain self-sufficiency in food. Officials see GM crops as a way of boosting yields on scarce farmland.
In 2009 China granted safety certificates for two GM varieties of rice and one of maize. This raised expectations that it might become the first country in the world to use GM technology in the production of a main staple. But further approvals needed for commercial growing have yet to be granted. To the consternation of GM supporters, the safety certificates for the rice are due to expire next August.
Public opinion is a big reason for the delay. Environmental groups in China have rarely succeeded in changing government policy. Officials have long treated such NGOs with suspicion and made it hard for them to register or set up offices in more than one place. The only NGO in China that devotes much time to the GM issue is an international one: Greenpeace. But the anti-GM lobby has thrived, thanks not least to the adoption of the cause by conservatives in the establishment as well as by informal groups of diehard Maoists who see America as a threat.
To the Maoists, opposing GM food is an urgent priority. Hardly a speech is made by one of them without mentioning it. “I support Mao Zedong thought,” shouted one of the protesters outside the agriculture ministry. The police usually treat them with kid gloves; unlike others who protest in public, they are ardent supporters of Communist Party rule. And on this issue, at least, the Maoists enjoy much sympathy; public anxiety about food safety has soared in recent years thanks to a series of scares. Of 100,000 respondents to an online poll in November, nearly 80% said they opposed GM technology.
The fightback begins
Since a change of China’s leadership a year ago, however, supporters of GM food inside the government and among the public have begun fighting back. In October Chinese media reported that 61 senior academics, in a rare concerted effort, had petitioned the government to speed up the commercialisation of GM crops. The Ministry of Agriculture was also said to be preparing a new public-education campaign on the merits of GM food (it issued a swift rebuttal of General Peng’s remarks, saying GM foods certified in China were just as safe as any other food). Since May Huazhong Agricultural University in the central city of Wuhan has organised nearly 30 public events promoting GM rice, including, in October, the serving of porridge made from it to about 300 people.
One of the recent petitioners, Li Ning of China Agricultural University, laments that the issue remains ensnared by nationalist sentiment. Among students, he says, “lots of them wonder how to express their patriotism; people say opposing GM is patriotic, so they say, ‘Fine, I’ll oppose GM.'” He says the scientists have not received an official answer to their appeal, but he is heartened at least by their new willingness to speak out. “Previously there was only one voice, and it was anti-GM. Now we’ve entered a period of acute antagonism.” The government, it appears, is waiting for the dust to settle before it lets the paddy fields fill with the controversial strains. That may take some time.
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