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UPDATED: April 18, 2014 NO. 27 JULY 4, 2013
Frank Facts on Frankenfoods
New import licenses for genetically modified products reignite food safety debate
By Yin Pumin

China started researching GM crops in the mid-1980s. In 1997, the Chinese Government approved commercial planting of GM cotton for the first time.

The ISAAA report claimed that China grew 4 million hectares of GM crops in 2012, making it the sixth largest area in biotech farming after the United States, Brazil, Argentina, Canada and India. The figure has not been officially confirmed by the Chinese Government.

In November 2009, in a landmark decision, the MOA issued bio-safety certificates to two strains of pest-resistant GM rice and corn. The move, which sparked long-running debates about the safety of GM foods and their impact on the environment, made China the first country in the world to give a nod to field trials of GM grains.

Then came the latest approval by the MOA of three varieties of GM soybeans to be imported as processing materials on June 13, which brought the number of types of transgenic soybeans approved to be imported in China to eight.

China began to import GM soybeans in 1997 to meet surging domestic demand. Last year, the country imported 58.38 million tons of soybeans, mostly GM varieties, while its own soybean production was about 13 million tons, official statistics showed.

The World Health Organization said that there are three main issues surrounding GM foods—the potential for allergic reactions, transferring harmful genes to the human body and crossbreeding with other plants.

Yuan Longping, a famous agricultural scientist known as the "father of hybrid rice," has repeatedly urged the government to proceed cautiously with any move to commercialize GM crops.

"One of the major features of GM crops is their ability to resist insects, but even scientists do not know what if any impact this will have on human beings," Yuan said.

However, Fang Zhouzi, a popular science writer who has a doctorate in biochemistry from Michigan State University in the United States, argues that GM foods pose no risk to human health. He said that the United States and Canada have applied the technology for nearly 20 years without apparent health effects, adding GM crops even benefit the environment by reducing the use of pesticides.

Xue Dayuan, a professor of biotechnology at Minzu University of China, said that authorities need to set up effective risk-evaluation and management mechanisms before commercializing GM products as some GM seeds are already in circulation in the country.

"It is true that GM technology is crucial for China's agricultural development, but compared with advances in the technology, more needs to be done in terms of supervision and management," Xue said.

Tightened controls

On May 18, the Entry-Exit Inspection and Quarantine Bureau in Harbin, northeast China's Heilongjiang Province, seized and destroyed 21 boxes of illegally imported GM corn seeds. The boxes, which in total weighed 115 kg, were imported by two seed suppliers in Harbin from U.S. companies.

Under Chinese laws, seeds entering China require certification from both importers and exporters. The GM corn seeds seized in May lacked any certification, according to quarantine officials.

Jiang Gaoming, a professor at the Institute of Botany of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, said that the bust could lead to tougher regulations on transgenics.

As early as 2001, the State Council, China's cabinet, introduced a regulation to ensure the safety of GM food, with strict provisions for researching, testing, producing and marketing such products. It stipulated that joint domestic-international studies on GM crops in China should receive approval from the MOA.

The National Development and Reform Commission issued a report in 2011, saying that China needs to enhance the management of GM food safety, adding that toxicological research remains in its initial stages.

"Neither group nor individual may apply GM technologies to staple foods," read a draft of the country's first Grains Law, which was submitted for public feedback in February 2012. The legislation has yet to be finished.

The draft would require that all activities related to GM seeds, including scientific research, field trials, production, sales, imports and exports, be carried out in accordance with the country's regulations.

Last November, a new regulation issued by the General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine expanded the range of goods subject to quarantine upon entering the Chinese mainland, including GM foodstuffs for the first time.

Local agricultural authorities have also taken stricter control of GM grains. In northeast China's Jilin Province, a major grain-producing area, provincial authorities routinely inspect rice and corn to ensure GM varieties do not enter the market.

Zheng Fengtian, a professor with the School of Agricultural Economics and Rural Development of Renmin University of China, urges authorities to continue to take a cautious approach to GM foods.

"More research needs to be conducted on GM organisms before putting such products on the market. With more attention from the public and media, greater policy control will be seen," said Zheng.

Email us at: yinpumin@bjreview.com

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