news, features, articles and disease information for the crop industry


Letting the GM Genie Out of the Bottle

05 December 2011

CHINA - Although genetically modified foods have been grown and sold in China for some time, the term still makes the public jittery.

Debates on genetic modification range from safety concerns, environmental impact, food security, ethics to politics. When all these issues come into play, discussions on GM become complicated, reports

When Chinese consumers surf the internet for information on oil made from imported GM soybeans - the most common GM product on the Chinese market - it's likely they will become confused.

Most of Chinese blogs on GM foods are not that balanced. They contain either vehement attacks or lavish, uncritical support, and scientists say that these polarising arguments are misleading the public.

"Americans never eat GM crops because of health issues, why should we Chinese fall into the trap?" one post reads.

Another report conflated two pieces of unrelated news: "Guangxi grows GM corn" and "seminal abnormality found among college students in Guangxi," implying a causal relationship.

Though scientists offer other views, their voices are drowned out by GM critics. "A lot of online information regarding GM crops in China is sensational and misleading, which causes panic since the public knows little about the technology. We need to deliver information in a more scientific and responsible manner," said Luo Yunbo, a professor with China Agricultural University on food science.

Luo acknowledged Chinese scientists have failed to accurately inform the public and needed to debate the issues using simple language.

He urged that the government facilitate spread of scientific information, though its credibility has been called into question after repeated food scandals.

Luo's view was shared by Lin Min, director of the Biotechnology Research Institute of the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences (CAAS), who believed more rational voices from reliable sources will create a more constructive environment for dialogues on the issue.

Whether GM food carries potential risks to health in the long term is the biggest concern for the public.

Luo, as a supporter of GM foods, said current scientific research suggests that once GM food passes the safety test and is granted certificates, it is as safe as non-modified foods, adding that no adverse health effects caused by products approved for sale have come to light.

The way to assess GM food safety is to see whether it is "substantially equivalent" to conventional food, according to Luo. The Food and Agriculture Organization and World Health Organization endorsed the principle in 1996.

The government has taken an open mind on the issue. China has allowed several GM crops to be grown, including cotton, peppers, tomatoes and papayas, and has authorized imports of GM soybeans and corn.

In 2008, the government injected 24 billion yuan (US$3.7 billion) into researching and developing GM crops while government officials have voiced support for the technology.

Debate heated up when China granted two strains of pest-resistant GM rice safety certificates in 2009, clearing a major hurdle for further plans of commercialisation.

The tinkering with the staple immediately prompted a backlash from GM opponents, saying it was too hasty to put an "immature" technology into commercial use.

Though GM rice has not been approved for commercial sale yet, it has been found on the shelves in many supermarkets in Hubei, Hunan and Jiangxi provinces, prompting concerns over weak market regulations.

Luo admitted that loopholes existed in China's supervision over the market, but he denied safety risks and said China is much stricter with GM crops than many other countries.

TheCropSite News Desk

Our Sponsors