• Health

China’s Genetically Altered Food Boom

6 minute read
Krista Mahr

In the wake of poisonings in Japan linked to Chinese-made dumplings, last week brought a fresh wave of scrutiny to China’s control over its food industry. In 2006 and 2007, European officials discovered an unauthorized variety of genetically modified (GM) rice made in China — illegal in both Europe and China — in processed food exported to European Union nations. Last Tuesday, the European Commission enacted an emergency regulation on Chinese food imports: Starting April 15, food products containing Chinese rice will require mandatory certification that they’ve been tested for the experimental GM variety called Bt63.

The measure underscores a discomfort in the West with China’s growing dominance in the business of inventing and selling genetically modified seed. Faced with feeding every fifth person on the planet with less than one-tenth of the world’s farmland, Beijing has been pumping hundreds of millions of dollars into transgenic crop research and development, hoping the plants, whose DNA is combined with genetic material that programs them with traits like pest and weed resistance, will help farmers yield more food and commodities at a lower cost — especially as farmland is being lost to development and drought. Most of China’s cotton is already transgenic, and rice, wheat, maize, soybeans and livestock are in the pipeline. “China decided that conventional technology would not allow it to feed its people,” says Clive James, chairman and founder of the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA). In the 12 years since GM crops have been commercially grown, James says most planting has been in the Americas. “I believe that the second decade will be the decade of Asia,” he says.

It’s a shift that’s causing second thoughts on both sides of this enduringly controversial technology. The United States is the world’s most enthusiastic adopter of GM crops, growing vast amounts of crops like herbicide-tolerant soybeans and insect-resistant corn; here, the seeds of globally operating companies like Monsanto and DuPont have passed health and environmental muster. While U.S. regulators have determined GM foods are safe to eat, China’s fast growth raises the question of whether one country’s health safety trials can translate in another. “We’ve been saying, ‘Trust us,'” says Gregory Jaffe, director of the Biotechnology Project at the Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington. “Now the shoe is on the other foot. And we’re not sure we like that system.”

In Europe, where consumer acceptance of GM food has always been lower than in the U.S., concerns over the incidents of Bt63 contamination may be rooted less in anxiety over China’s safety standards than in a more general worry over the ever-increasing use of GM crops around the world. China, after all, is not alone in its transgressions: the U.S. has also had major incidents of its GM plants showing up in the wrong food chains, costing big trade dollars from GM-wary nations. Last year, Gene Watch UK, a watchdog group that works with Greenpeace, recorded 39 worldwide incidents of illegal GM plants found in food supplies, or approved GM plants found in countries where they are illegal. Becky Price, who helps maintain Gene Watch UK’s public list of global GM contamination, says keeping track of these plants is still far from a perfect science. “Nobody has demonstrated how to grow a GM food crop and stop it from getting into the food chain,” says Price. “It’s a ridiculous concept.”

Beijing is listening. Long before last week’s announcement from the EC, Chinese officials were aware of the risks — particularly to its global image — in moving too fast on developing and trading its own GM food crops. So far, only a handful of minor food plants like papaya, tomato and bell pepper have been approved for commercial planting in China. A few years back, many scientists believed it would be the first nation in the world to give the thumbs up to genetically modified rice varieties like Bt63. But after Greenpeace found unapproved GM rice seed for sale in a Chinese market in 2003, and when illegal rice also started to show up in processed noodles in Europe, China’s Ministry of Agriculture appeared to back off. Now the experimental varieties are stuck in testing paddies around the country, and biotech labs’ funds are starting to be depleted by the costly requirement of buying back and destroying the rice from the farmers who grow it. “There’s no indication that if you continue, you’ll get approved,” says Jikun Huang, Director of the Center for Chinese Agricultural Policy at the Chinese Academy of Sciences. Though the amount of rice exported from China is small, Huang says that if China became the first to commercialize GM rice and there was a slip-up in international trade, “People would lose faith in all [Chinese] commodities.”

Beijing faces a lack of confidence even at home. In a survey conducted last year by Greenpeace, 65% of consumers in Shanghai, Beijing and Guangzhou who were familiar with GM food preferred its conventional cousin. “Right now, I think if most people see that a plant is transgenic, they don’t like it,” says Li Huaping of South China Agricultural University. Despite China’s policy of mandatory labeling GM foods, Li says many of the transgenic papayas he helped develop go unlabeled in markets because vendors know they won’t sell as well. Nevertheless, Li is optimistic this will change: “As knowledge is spread, and people understand what transgenic means, I think more people will like it.”

To be sure, all of China’s R&D won’t lie fallow forever. If Clive James is right, the Decade of Asia is coming. If a serious virus were to threaten China’s crucial domestic rice supply, or if a well-positioned politician decided transgenic maize was the answer to soaring global food prices, Beijing’s green light could come quickly. And the world would have to be ready to go.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com