Background Banner

China’s GMO Policies in the Spotlight of Public Concern

Published: Mar 12, 2014

Joel Haggard, USMEF Senior Vice President for Asia-Pacific
Jianwen Liu, USMEF Director, Beijing

The genetically modified food issue emerged during the National People’s Congress that commenced March 5, drawing public and outspoken support from some sectors, including Chinese Ministry of Agriculture (MOA) Vice-Minister Niu Dun, and opposition from more conservative factions of the government.

While Niu, Minister of Agriculture Han Changfu and former Premier Wen Jiabao, are publicly in favor of GMO technology, opposition to the technology has strengthened in recent years as NGOs and large-scale consumer blog groups have become more vocal and aggressive.

In the last few years, rumors demonizing GMO technology have spread rapidly online. Some proposals in China call for a ban on imported genetically modified seeds while others suggested establishing national GMO-free zones and ecosystem protection zones, including GMO product management into the national strategic framework so as to implement more stringent laws and law enforcement.

One of the minority parties in China, the Farmer’s and Worker’s Democratic Party, proposes that, in addition to GMO agricultural product labeling, the compulsory labeling system that is currently law should include food products using GMO soybeans, soymeal and corn as raw materials, as well as in meat from animals fed GMO grains and oilseeds.

During the current National People’s Congress and the concurrent Chinese People’s Consultative Conference (CPPCC), delegates have called for establishing a strict “compulsory labeling” for GMO food in China. GM labeling requirements have already been on the books for domestically produced and imported foods for nearly a decade, however they have not been uniformly implemented and the lack of approved GM foodstuffs in China (papaya is the sole food crop) has kept the visibility of such labels at a minimum.

In addressing the GMO issue, Niu defended the MOA’s position of managing agro-biotechnology. He elaborated on reasons why the government supports GMO technology development and commercialization while at the same time mentioning the importance of consumer opinion and interest. Niu also argued that GMO technology development and application is in China’s best interest.

“First of all, we must separate the terms of trans-genetic technology and GMO products,” said Niu. “I am from the Ministry of Agriculture, and I can only talk about trans-genetic agricultural technology and genetically modified agro-products.

“Simply speaking, trans-genetic biotechnology is high-tech,” Niu added. “The world is paying attention to its development and so should we. We should do our best to keep up with the agro-biotechnology at the forefront. It is in the best interests of the country and the people as it is demonstrated as a soft power.”

Niu noted that the MOA carefully evaluates the risks of GMO crops on two fronts: food safety and environmental impact. He emphasized MOA’s extensive risk analysis process in evaluating new GMO technologies, such as the need to conduct extensive field trials.

While encouraging consumers to educate themselves to better understand trans-genetic agricultural technologies and GMO foods, Niu addressed the labeling issue, saying: “China requires GMO food labeling to inform the consumers and allow them to choose based on their own will.”

Niu’s supportive comments on GMOs were echoed by Han Changfu, Chinese minister of agriculture.

“The Ministry of Agriculture has been consistent and clear in its position toward genetically modified organisms,” said Han. “Simply speaking, the management of GMOs is two-fold: on the one hand, the government supports active biotechnology research and encourages original innovations. On the other hand, the government is prudent in GMO commercialization and promotion, aiming to make sure the technology and varieties of GM crops are safe.”

Han noted that China currently only allows genetically modified cotton and papaya to be commercially produced, and no GMO staple food is allowed for commercialization.