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Lua Wilkinson

New Flashpoint For Chinese Food Consumers: Genetically Modified Soy

(Via Bigstockphoto)
(Via Bigstockphoto)

China’s Ministry of Agriculture recently approved the import of three new varieties of genetically modified (GM) soybeans. Two of these are patented by American companies Monsanto and BASF Plant Science, while the third is patented by German company Bayer AG. All three strains will be imported to China from Brazil. Genetically modified food is a controversial topic in China, as many Chinese fear health risks from the newly developed food products. 

China already imports 80% of its soybeans from major suppliers abroad, including the U.S. and Brazil. China also imports corn, canola and sugar beets. Other GM products commercialized and already on trial in China include potatoes, tomatoes, sweet peppers, wheat, rice, and maize. As a result, Chinese consumers are finding it increasingly difficult to avoid GM foods. Government funding supports biotechnology research and development, borne of the belief that GM crops are crucial to feeding a fifth of the world’s population as the amount of arable land in China decreases. The Chinese government recently approved its own “National Special Program on Genetically Modified Crops and Livestock Breeding” and has invested more than US$4 billion in GM research thus far. 

Plant scientists and most agricultural experts assert that GM technology can improve food safety by decreasing exposure to pesticide residues in food, while critics remain concerned about the unknown ecological, environmental, and human health effects of GM foods. Some countries have banned them outright. The questionable ethical practices of biotech organizations such as Monsanto have led to global demonstrations against the plant science conglomerate. 

The Chinese people once viewed GM foods with a less jaundiced eye than most. China first sanctioned the import of genetically modified soybeans in 1997. Previous surveys from the 1990s and the middle of the previous decade even showed that urban consumers were willing to pay more for foods made with GM technology, concluding that they welcomed developments in genetic modification of food as a sign of improving food security and technology in China.

Kimberly Ashton, a health coach and co-founder of Sprout Lifestyle in Shanghai, wrote in an e-mail interview that for her health-conscious consumers, finding items that are not genetically modified is “a plus,” but that people remain primarily focused on food safety. “There are so many other food-related problems and recent scares that people just want no hormones, less pesticides and most people can only afford the produce at wet markets…GM is not something on their radar.”

But Chinese netizens and media outlets alike are voicing serious skepticism at the recent decision to allow the importation of additional GM soybeans, adding further controversy to an already controversial Chinese food system. Some experts are even telling Chinese media that children, adults of childbearing age, and pregnant women should not eat genetically modified foods to avoid the health risks. Others are publishing point-by-point articles on the downsides of GM foods and the threats to human health and the environment. Chinese consumers are reporting on Sina Weibo that they are changing their buying habits as a result. For example, Weibo user @yffs116 claims to have been pro-GM until learning about the dangers from media outlets, in a comment that sparked over 1,500 shares and almost 500 comments.

Some Weibo critiques of the news also take aim at the United States, one of the major exporters of GM soy to China. Weibo user @马子欣的微博, who describes herself as a “full-time mom,” wrote, “Americans are really awful; always exporting their worst things to China. Just look at the new GM soy that Americans won’t even eat themselves.” The comment misunderstands the origin of the new soy — the strains will be grown in Brazil. Its melding of attitudes toward GM food and the U.S. perhaps harkens to last year’s revelations that U.S.-based researchers had conducted clinical trials of genetically modified “golden rice” on Chinese children in 2008.

Netizens did not spare China’s government. @那僧 wrote, “Don’t tell me GM is non-toxic! Our leaders won’t even eat it; everyone knows that they refuse to have GM oil in their cafeterias.” An article titled “Shocking! GM Committee Director Wu Kongming refuses to eat genetically modified rice himself” – which rather directly undermines governmental assurances the products are safe – was shared 10,000 times and garnered over 2,800 comments on Sina Weibo.

According to the Ministry of Agriculture, the new varieties of soybean will be used solely for making oil, and therefore will not contain the protein components of soy that have been genetically modified. Notwithstanding those assurances, some Chinese are concerned that if regulation is not sufficiently robust, the GM components of the soy beans will nonetheless make it into the food supply. For example, the soymeal left after processing may be fed to animals meant for human consumption. Defenders also mention that only GM soybeans – not seeds – are imported, and are used mainly for the production of raw material and livestock feed. There is currently a labeling scheme, although critics say it remains poorly implemented and regulated.

Many are calling for a renewed effort to reinforce the labeling scheme in order to give consumers the power to choose. Nonetheless, some users remain supportive of GM foods, or at least resigned to their prevalence. “Everyone who has been to a restaurant has eaten genetically modified food,” wrote user @捣蛋之父-Milgram, “If you object to this technology, it only shows you are a fool.”

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Lua Wilkinson

Lua Wilkinson is a PhD student in Nutrition at Cornell University, where she studies digital social networks to promote maternal and child health globally. As a nutritionist and ethnographer, she researches migration, food systems, economics, technology and anything else that bridges the gap between nutrition and society. She tweets from @LuaWilkinson and maintains a website, www.luawilkinson.com.