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In rejecting GMO shipments, is China more protective of health of its citizens than US?

| October 14, 2014

China’s public on-gain off-again relationship with biotech crops has long been a source of cognitive dissonance in the GMO debate. Biotech critics pounce in glee with every time the Russian news agency RT.com reports a rejected shipment of grain or an end to a government sponsored field trial.

What does the Chinese government know that the US government is hiding from us? it asks. Are the Chinese more protective of their citizens than the US government when it comes to biotech crops?

There are actually much more prosaic forces driving these decisions. A recently launched campaign by Beijing extolling the virtues of biotech in ag to a wary public points towards more mundane political infighting behind the vagaries of China’s recent moves. Reuters reported at the beginning of this month:

China’s government has kicked off a media campaign in support of genetically modified crops, as it battles a wave of negative publicity over a technology it hopes will play a major role in boosting its food security. The agriculture ministry earlier this week announced it would try to educate the public on GMO via TV, newspapers and the Internet. It hopes to stifle anti-GMO sentiment that has gathered momentum in the wake of incidents such as reports that genetically-modified rice had been illegally sold at a supermarket in the center of the country. Beijing has been a long-time proponent of GMOs, which it sees as broadly safe and as potentially key in helping feed the world’s largest population.

Let’s take a brief look at what’s going on behind the sciences and deconstruct the controversy.

As of last year, China had 4 million hectares (10 million acres) of biotech crops planted. Last year China approved two new strains of traited soybeans and one of traited corn for import from Argentina. Despite the rejected shipments, China grows and imports massive amounts of biotech corn and soy.

So what was behind Beijing’s rejection in January of shipments of corn found to contain some of Syngenta’s Viptera corn, a new traited line that had already cleared numerous regulatory hurdles around the world?

Syngenta received U.S. regulatory approval for selling Agrisure Viptera corn seed in April 2010 and proceeded to secure approvals for growing the corn in Canada, Argentina and Brazil. Import approval was received from Australia, Brazil, Canada, Japan, Mexico, New Zealand, the Philippines, South Korea and Taiwan. Confusion seemed to occur in whether import approval would be needed for China and the approval timeline after Syngenta submitted registration documents in March 2010. China reportedly requires a recognized second country’s regulatory approval before it will begin its approval process. China accepted Brazil’s approval in this case.

Former US secretary of agriculture John Block spelled it out for us.

For reasons known only to the Chinese government it has so far been unwilling to complete this trait’s review. Until recently, that fact had not prevented the Chinese from importing tens of thousands of tons of Viptera corn, which by the nature of the distribution process is, practically speaking, inseparable from other corn. Suddenly in November [2013], however, the Chinese started turning away corn shipments in which the trait was detected.

Many have speculated on the reasons behind this latest Chinese action. But the simplest explanation is probably the best: China simply wants out of the corn contracts it signed when the price of corn was higher than it is today.

The stalling on approval became a convenient way to arbitrage corn prices after a bumper crop had brought prices down below the price of the futures contracts that the Chinese had bought. Hardball trade negotiations.

Related article:  Mark Lynas: From GMO hater to supporter

What about the field trials? China had loudly touted their new research into two Bt rice varieties and one new corn variety, but then quietly failed to renew the biosafety certificates for the trials.

Why the ministry allowed the certificates to lapse is in dispute. Some environmentalists say public worries about GM crops played a decisive role. “We believe that loopholes in assessing and monitoring [GM] research, as well as the public concern around safety issues are the most important reasons that the certifications have not been renewed,” writes Wang Jing, a Greenpeace official based in Beijing, in an e-mail to ScienceInsider.

Others believe agricultural economics also influenced the decision. China has nearly reached self-sufficiency in producing rice using conventional varieties, so the ministry has decided there is no need to commercialize Bt rice in the near future, says Huang Jikun, director of the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Center for Chinese Agricultural Policy. He says that with commercialization off the table, there was no point in renewing the certifications. Huang says “rising public concerns [about the] safety of GM rice” likely also played a role.

Plant scientists that I communicated with surmised an even simpler reason. The trials didn’t pan out, something that happens all the time in large scale breeding programs. As I pointed out recently, contemporary breeding is hard and time consuming with lots of trial and error. It seems odd that the government would pull the plug on their investment in three promising crops after five years because of public anti-GMO sentiment and then launch a public campaign to address that sentiment just two months later. It seems much more likely that the trials weren’t hitting their goals.

None of this was mysterious to those of us who get our news outside of anti-GMO circles. Nor would it have been mysterious to anyone who keeps Occam’s Razor close at hand to slice through the nonsense in their news feed. While people typically think of Occam’s Razor as a rule of thumb that holds that the simplest explanation is the one most likely to be true, it’s actually more specific than that. Occam’s Razor states that among competing hypotheses, the one with the fewest assumptions should be selected. Hardball trade negotiations and trial and error in high stakes plant breeding require fewer assumptions to explain what we were seeing, but they don’t serve the interests of opponents of GMOs who are eager to portray China as on the verge of abandoning GM technology–which is absurd, as the country remains one of the leading research and development centers of GM products in the world.

Marc Brazeau is a writer and agriculture editor for the Genetic Literacy Project. He blogs at Food and Farm Discussion Lab. Follow Marc on Twitter @realfoodorg.

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The GLP featured this article to reflect the diversity of news, opinion and analysis. The viewpoint is the author’s own. The GLP’s goal is to stimulate constructive discourse on challenging science issues.

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