Global Anti-GM Sentiment Slows China’s Biotech Agenda

Genetic modification of agricultural products like cotton, rice, and tomatoes has recently allowed small farmers in China to avoid spraying toxic pesticides on their crops. Pesticides – laborious to apply and proven to be harmful to your health – are now becoming obsolete because genetically modified (GM) crops are automatically resistant to the most common agricultural threats. But despite early success stories and continued Chinese investment that dwarfs even advanced biotech countries like India and Brazil, the future of GM crops in China remains uncertain. First, China is worried that it will lose access to export markets like the EU who shun GM goods. Second, regulatory systems that could make the crops more acceptable on an international scale would be costly and difficult to manage. And finally, there is still uncertainty as to the domestic acceptance of the new technology. However, because of improved Chinese access to information on biotechnology, this last doubt will be increasingly subject to the outcome of the world debate over GM goods. –YaleGlobal

Global Anti-GM Sentiment Slows China's Biotech Agenda

Despite marked success, China is hesitant about moving forward in commercializing GM crop
Valerie Karplus
Friday, September 26, 2003
Chinese farmers gather corn harvest: Research is underway to enhance them nutritionally. (Photo: Nayan Chanda)

HU VILLAGE, Henan Province, China: In this small village in the heart of China's major cotton growing region, Zhang Yumei used to spend long summer days spraying toxic chemicals on cotton plants to prevent bollworms from chewing up her harvest. Though time-consuming and harmful to her health, applying potent pesticide cocktails was the only method she had available to combat the scourge-until she began planting a new genetically modified (GM) cotton variety that could do most of the job for her. The novel cotton, known as Bt cotton, produces a substance that mimics the pesticide's effects, reducing the need for heavy pesticides and the labor to apply them. Farmers like Ms. Zhang are now not only better able to protect their health, but have also found time to pursue off-farm jobs or even start their own businesses.

Despite early success stories, however, the future of GM crops in China remains uncertain. China's biotech industry has burgeoned against a backdrop of increasing global speculation on the health and safety risks involved in planting and consuming the genetically modified crops. Mindful of these concerns, China's heath and environmental safety regulators are hesitant to approve most GM crops-especially food crops-for large-scale commercial planting. Additional concerns have focused on whether or not GM crops, if commercialized, will eventually be accepted in many EU countries where public opposition has persuaded governments to ban GM products. Even as many Chinese scientists, breeders, and farmers actively support the development of GM crops, anti-GM sentiment with origins far from Beijing is stalling application of the technology in China.

Bright face of genetically modified corn plant: pest-infected non-GM (left) and pest-free GM plant (right) planted side-by-side in a field trial.

(photo: Dr. Yu Jialin, China Agricultural University)

Since the late 1980s, the Chinese government has emphasized crop biotechnology as one key to feeding its expanding population and improving the competitiveness of its small farms. By the early 1990s, China had become the first country to plant a GM crop - a virus-resistant tobacco variety - on a commercial scale. In 2002, Chinese research institutes reported that scientists had developed 141 types of GM crops, 65 of which were already in field trials, making China's capacity for developing GM crops the largest outside North America.

Unlike the case for biotechnology industries in most developed countries, which are dominated by the private sector, the Chinese government has aggressively funded public research to develop new GM crop varieties, many of which are uniquely suited to local growing conditions. Chinese labs are currently developing wheat and potato plants resistant to several bacterial diseases prevalent in domestic fields, and many other GM plants and even animal varieties are in the pipeline. Several lines of Bt rice-the rice counterpart to Bt cotton-are already in field trials, while other crops, such as nutritionally enhanced corn, are under development in laboratories.

The Chinese government spent $112 million on crop biotech research in 1999-nearly ten times the expenditures of India and Brazil, which also have advanced biotechnology industries. Beijing also has plans to quadruple its national plant biotech research budget by 2005. Though small compared to expenditures in the U.S., which totaled between $1-2 billion in 1999, budget projections suggest that Chinese expenditures may inch closer to U.S. levels in the coming decade.

So far, Bt cotton remains the most widely-cited success in the development of China's crop biotech. In 2001, over 4 million small-scale farmers planted Bt cotton over 1.6 million hectares (up from 100,000 hectares in 1998), and these figures are expected to grow. By 2002, Chinese labs had developed 18 varieties of pest-resistant Bt cotton. Other commercialized varieties-virus-resistant peppers, color-altered petunias, and tomatoes with an extended shelf life-were also commercialized in 1997, but are only planted on small areas.

Considerable investment, however, could be undercut by the stark split between the United States and the European Union over regulatory policy for GM crops that has developed since the late 1990s. The rising transatlantic tension has affected the Chinese biotech industry in several important respects.

First, Chinese regulators are concerned that if they approve large-scale commercial planting of GM food crops, China may lose access to key export markets in Europe and parts of Asia where consumers shun GM foods. However, the value of agricultural exports to these markets is small compared to the amount of China's agricultural yields intended for domestic consumption. According to Dr. Huang Jikun at the Center for Chinese Agricultural Policy, as long as Chinese consumers remain willing to eat foods derived from GM crops and farmers can reap benefits from planting them, fear of rejection in export markets is unlikely to stall the commercialization of GM crops in the long run.

Second, international donors and NGOs, many of which are based in Europe and promote "green" agendas, have spread concerns about the health and environmental safety of GM food crops to government ministries and regulatory organizations. These concerns have manifested themselves in Chinese regulations implemented in the spring of 2002, which required all foods derived from GM crops to be labeled as such. Under these requirements, if China were to commercialize GM food crops, regulators would need to develop a system for labeling these crops, which would be costly and could limit the economic benefits of commercialization.

Finally, the robustness of Chinese agricultural biotech depends on continued public acceptance of the technology. Most of the Chinese investment in GM crops thus far has focused on varieties intended primarily for the Chinese domestic market. Through the internet, newspapers, and television, the Chinese public will be increasingly able to access information on biotech crops and the global debate. As this knowledge grows, so may the potential for public opposition, especially given China's close ties with many parts of Europe. Already, several Chinese newspapers, mostly notably the People's Daily, have published short columns alerting citizens to potential harms that could result from consuming GM foods and noting public preferences for organically grown varieties.

Despite ongoing uncertainty about global acceptance of GM crops, enthusiasm for the technology remains high among Chinese policymakers and scientists. Dr. Chen Zhangliang, President of the China Agricultural University and one of the country's pioneers in agricultural biotechnology, says commercializing GM crops is not a question of if, but when. If the Henan farmer Zhang Yumei's situation is any indication, GM crops-both commercially available and those still under development-are likely to be in high demand among Chinese farmers in the future. Yet Dr. Chen admits that Chinese acceptance of the technology will heavily depend on whether or not GM crops are accepted globally, and in Europe in particular. Given the size and potential of China's domestic industry, as well as the country's food needs, a lot is at stake.

Valerie J. Karplus spent last year working with the Center for Integrated Agricultural Development at China Agricultural University. She graduated from Yale College in 2002.

© 2003 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization