China Hates GMOs. Problem Is, China Really Needs GMOs
China has a fifth of the world’s people, but only about 7 percent of its arable land. Food security is a national obsession—so it only seemed natural when, earlier this month, state-owned ChemChina announced its bid to buy the pesticide- and seed-producing giant Syngenta, in what is likely to be the biggest acquisition in the country’s history. Technology, the Party seemed to say, and especially genetically modified crops, are the key to a sustainable future.
There’s just one problem: Most Chinese hate GMOs.
The Chinese Communist Party hasn’t hesitated to use its money and clout to support the country’s expanding population. It’s bulldozed vast swaths of cities, rerouted and dammed the Yangtze River, and raised skyscrapers in the desert. But when it comes to commercial GMOs, China is stalling. The country issued its first license to a GM crop in 1997—cotton, which is now widely used. But the last crop approved was papaya, in 2006. Since then, China has confined GM crops to the laboratory.
Food, it turns out, is personal. In a country that only repealed its one-child policy a few months ago, families place a premium on safe and healthy foods—which have boomed as an industry over the past five years. At the supermarket, Chinese consumers choose between foods labeled non-harmful, green, natural, or organic, even if those labels don’t mean anything. “Genetically modified” doesn’t quite fit the mold.
A history of food scandals make Chinese consumers especially wary of technology in the grocery. In 2008, regulators discovered that corrupt businesses were adding melamine, a chemical used in plastics, to powdered milk and infant formula to artificially inflate protein measurements. The spiked powders killed six infants and hospitalized 54,000 others. That scandal roughly coincided with the central government’s decision to grant permission to a group of scientists researching Bt rice—a GM crop that expresses a gene from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis to ward off pests.
“There was a widespread public fear that, ‘Oh, maybe they’re trying to sneak this through too!’” says Carl Pray, an economist at Rutgers who has researched Chinese attitudes toward GMOs. Groups like Greenpeace and the ultra-Maoist group Utopia condemned the research. When Zhang Qifa, one of the project’s scientists, took the stage to give a presentation, someone threw a ceramic mug at him. Another member in the audience cried, “Zhang Qifa is a traitor!”
That sentiment—minus the mug-slinging—is consistent across most of the Chinese population. In one survey, 84 percent of respondents were opposed to GMOs. The counterintuitive part? The higher your educational attainment, the more likely you are to oppose genetically modified crops. “I found that the most interesting questions were being asked by urbanites who were predisposed—rightly, I think—to ask difficult questions and push back against the technocrat’s assumption that more information will bring acceptance,” says Sam Geall, an anthropologist at the University of Sussex.
Despite all this, for the 13th straight year, agriculture and biotechnology topped the Party’s wish list in the No. 1 Central Document—the government’s prime directive. Chinese president Xi Jinping has stated that domestic scientists should “boldly research and innovate, [and] dominate the high points of GMO techniques.” The most recent Five Year Plan names biotechnology, including enhanced agriculture, as one of seven “Strategic Emerging Industries.” 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.
Whether consumers realize it or not, China is already dependent on GM crops. The country imports 5 million tons of GM corn and much more soybeans each year. “It’s mostly used for vegetable oil and animal feed,” says Pray. “But it’s being consumed.” And while China will bar Syngenta from bringing GM crops to market in the country, the company will very quickly be able to sell things like hybrid rice strains, which are made by crossing two or more strains of rice together. The company can also avoid regulations on GM crops—which only include those in which DNA has been added to plant genome—by blasting rice and corn with chemicals to induce mutations, hybridizing the strains that end up with useful changes.
Syngenta might also find a regulatory loophole in the powerful gene-editing technique Crispr. In China, GMOs are legally defined as “something to which you add DNA.” Traditionally, you’d shoot up your rice with a bacteria that mixes in some interesting, new, pesticide-resistant DNA. But with Crispr, researchers can create a specific mutation by snipping with Crispr’s genetic scissors. The right cuts could yield a strain of rice that’s terrifically resistant to disease—“even if you couldn’t tell it from a plant that’s got a mutation from a cosmic ray,” says Pray. Given China’s rapid uptake of Crispr in even more ethically-fraught human biology experiments, the technology might finally help change the image of GMOs from contaminant to enhanced.
So how long before Chinese citizens rich and poor are eating their GM broccoli, in one form or another? “I would think within 10 years,” says Pray.
“Five years,” says Gao.
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