China has a fifth of the world’s population, but only about 7 percent of its arable land. Farming plus safe and healthy foods are national obsessions. So it came as no surprise that government-owned ChemChina is poised to snap up Swiss-based Syngenta, one the world’s largest seed and pesticide companies. It’s a bet on the future by the country’s ruling elite.
The biggest challenge is overcoming widespread public skepticism. Resistance from groups like Greenpeace and the ultra-Maoist group Utopia that regularly vilify biotechnology research has had a great impact. In one recent survey, 84 percent of respondents opposed GMOs.
Despite this public wariness, agriculture and biotechnology topped the Communist Party’s wish list in its Central Document for the 14th straight year. The government has signaled it will actively encourage their development in order to boost food production.
The agriculture blueprint published in August recommended “pushing forward the commercialization of new pest resistant cotton, pest resistant corn and herbicide resistant soy beans.” The government has also designated biotechnology as a “strategic emerging industry” and has funded a large research program for GE crops.
The government also appears to be putting money where its directives are. According to to Wired, Caixia Gao, a plant geneticist at the Institute of Genetics and Developmental Biology, has used money from the Chinese Ministry of Science to engineer rice for herbicide resistance and corn for drought resistance. “We want to put our product on the market as soon as possible,” she says.
At present only two GE crops have been approved for cultivation: a virus resistant papaya authorized in 2006 and insecticide resistant cotton, which is engineered to include a natural bacterium, Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) that naturally repels insects, approved in 1996. The use of the Bt bacterium dramatically reducing the need for pesticide use. Two GM rice crops have received Ministry of Agriculture safety certificates but the government has not approved them for commercialization. China also plants millions of Bt GM poplar trees that have been shown to have no harmful impact on the environment.
Bt cotton is the major GE crop grown. As of 2015 it accounted for 96 percent of the country’s total cotton acreage. China is the second largest producer of cotton in the world behind India, which is also a major grower of Bt cotton. According to the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA), incomes of cotton farmers have increased “by approximately $220 per hectare due, on average, to a 10 percent increase in yield and a 60 percent reduction in insecticides” as a result of the use of Bt cotton.
In an attempt to stir public opposition to GE crops, Greenpeace alleged last January that farmers in northeast China were growing GM corn. It claimed 93 percent of samples taken in 2015 from corn fields in five counties in Liaoning province, which is one of the major grain growing regions of the country, tested positive for GMOs. If the allegations proved true, the crops were not sanctioned by the government and were instead the result of GMO plants tested in field trials being sold illegally to farmers. There have also been allegations of the illegal growing of GM rice in Hubei province.
A series of food scandals have contributed to the erosion of public trust in the food supply system. In 2008 milk and infant formula products were found adulterated with melamine. As a result, 54,000 babies were hospitalized and six died after developing kidney stones.
Other food scandals include: watermelons exploding after excessive use of growth hormones, borax in beef, bleach found in mushrooms, the sale of cooking oil recovered from drains and soy sauce made from arsenic.
These scandals have made the public leery of government food safety, increasing public suspicion about government-backed GMOs. A 2014 poll indicated that less than 1 percent of those surveyed accepted that GE foods were safe. Worries about the safety of GM crops have been exacerbated by unfounded rumors, often spread by Greenpeace and other NGOs, that they might cause infertility, cancer and other health problems.
“Many people in China still have limited knowledge about biotechnology, and rumors and misinformation is widespread,” noted a report on the food security challenges in China by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. “A common and persistent misperception is that consumers in biotechnology producing countries, such as the United States, do not themselves consume genetically modified food. The emerging media, such as the MicroBlog, WeChat, and on-line forums, are often used by opponents of agricultural biotechnology.”
Although the government has been hesitant about sanctioning the growing of GM crops, it has approved their large scale importation. China is the world’s largest importer of GMO soybeans, which along with imported GE corn is used as animal feed. In addition, it also imports soybeans to produce soybean oil, rapeseed oil made from GE rapeseed and sugar derived from GE sugar beets.
In 2013, President Xi Jinping signaled to the public a more accepting stance towards GMOs when he said China must “occupy the commanding heights of transgenic technology” and not yield that ground to “big foreign firms.”
In an attempt to cut down on its reliance on foreign biotechnology, the government has actively funded a major GM research program, disbursing at least $3 billion to research institutes and domestic companies to develop home-grown disease and drought resistant wheat, disease resistant rice, drought resistant corn and soybeans that produce more oil. In addition, there have been field trials and research conducted on GM peanuts.
“Agricultural biotechnology is one of the few technologies in which China is on an equal footing with the world’s best,” said Yan Jianbing, a corn genomics researcher at Huazhong Agricultural University in Wuhan. Yan works at the University’s laboratory of crop genetic improvement, which is a government designated GMO research facility.
A senior agriculture ministry official, Liao Xijuan, recently said the government plans to focus on new types of insect-resistant cotton and corn. There is a particular focus on developing China-engineered products and not depending on imported patented technology.
“We cannot lag behind others in GMO research,” said Han Jun, the deputy of the Central Office for Agricultural Work. “Our GMO market should not be saturated by foreign brands.”
To hasten that reality, the government backed the $43 billion ChemChina takeover of Syngenta.
In addition to investing in GM crops, China is also spending heavily on gene editing as a means of modifying plants and animals. Chinese scientists claim they are among the first to use CRISPR technology to make wheat resistant to a common fungal disease, disease resistant tomatoes and to make pigs that have leaner meat. Paul Knoepfler, an associate professor of cell biology and human anatomy at UC Davis School of Medicine, said he “would rank the U.S. and China first and second” in CRISPR-Cas9 technology.
Given the Chinese public’s distrust of GMOs, cultivation will likely proceed at a gradual and cautious pace. The government is likely to embark upon a major education campaign to reassure the public that GE foods are safe to consume before any major commercialization begins.
As part of its reassurance campaign for GM crops, the Agriculture Ministry indicated this summer that it will support new food labeling laws “based on a certain threshold” of GE content “at a suitable time.”
The government clearly recognizes the need to increase farm productivity at a time when arable land is increasingly disappearing as a result of spreading urbanization, curb the damage done to crops by pests and deal with the threat of climate change—all factors which will necessitate the application of GE technology to grow drought and flood resistant crops.
If China does utilize transgenic and gene editing technology to produce food on a large scale it could encourage other Asian nations to also grow GE crops given that China is the region’s largest trading partner and a major source of foreign assistance and investment.
Steven E. Cerier is a freelance international economist.