A Chinese agricultural official's unsupported claims about the carcinogenic risks of consuming genetically modified soybeans have rekindled a fervent debate about the use of genetically modified crops in a country with ever-expanding food needs.
Wang Xiaoyu, deputy secretary general of the Heilongjiang Soybean Association, a supporter of local non-genetically modified soybeans, recently told local media that people who consume soy oil made with genetically modified soybeans 'are more vulnerable to developing tumors and suffering sterility' (in Chinese)
To back his claim, Mr. Wang noted that regions where consumption of GMO soy oil was high, such as the southern provinces of Fujian and Guangdong, also boasted relatively high levels of cancer.
Experts were quick to call Mr. Wang's methodology into question, with several noting that he had failed to present even a scintilla of laboratory evidence linking GMO soy oil with cancer or fertility problems. But in a country already deeply suspicious of genetically modified crops, social media users took the idea and ran with it, sending fear over carcinogenic oil seeping through the Chinese Internet.
'We should replace all the leaders' special provisions with GMO food,' wrote one user of Sina Corp.'s popular Weibo microblogging platform. 'Good things should be reserved for the Communist Party.'
The strong response to Mr. Wang's conjecture appears to have been fueled in part by a recent government decision to approve imports of new varieties of genetically modified soy beans, as well as by rumors that people in the U.S. don't eat the genetically modified foods they produce.
In June, Chinese agricultural authorities approved imports of three new genetically modified soy bean varieties, including two produced by U.S. seed giant Monsanto and one by German chemical producer BASF. GMO opponents criticized the country's agriculture ministry for failing to be transparent about the approvals.
The ministry said in a statement that it had received import applications from the two companies in 2010, but a search of the ministry website turns up no documents or notices indicating applications were filed. The ministry did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Meanwhile, rumors that U.S. consumers didn't eat genetically modified food fed into existing paranoia in China about GMO products, which have been described on some Chinese Internet discussion boards as a 'soft bomb' unleashed by the U.S. to destroy China and a U.S conspiracy to manipulate the global economy.
In fact, U.S. consumers eat large quantities of genetically modified food. Speaking in a panel discussion hosted on the website of the Communist Party mouthpiece People's Daily (in Chinese), Li Ning, director of the Ministry of Agriculture's gene safety management division, noted that 70% of food in the U.S. contained genetically modified material.
'There haven't been any confirmed food safety cases caused by GMO food so far. It is safe to eat genetically modified food,' she said.
Tasked with feeding 20% of the world's population on less than 10% of the world's arable land, China's government has pushed for the use of GMO technologies to boost the country's seed sector and improve agricultural efficiency. The country's national science and strategy lists the development of pest- and disease-resistant GMO crops as a key project.
Developing genetically modified crops is 'just like adding wings to a tiger,' Huang Dafang, a researcher with the Biotechnology Research Institute of the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences, said during an interview in March. A key GMO supporter, Mr. Huang argues that conventional agriculture alone cannot solve China's food needs.
But public opposition to the use of genetically modified crops remains strong.
'China doesn't need to develop GMO. If we cultivate land well and waste less feed (don't throw dead pigs into rivers), China's agriculture can feed the Chinese people,' Gu Xiulin, a Yunnan University of Finance and Economics processor, wrote on Weibo. 'GMO is a magic knife that can annihilate mankind and destroy the environment例 don't be fooled.'
In fact, China has been importing genetically modified soy beans since 1997, and also allows the import of some varieties of genetically modified corn, though both are subject to strict controls. At present, genetically modified corn and soy are only approved for processing into soyoil, soymeal and animal feed, not direct human consumption.
China has become the world's largest soybean importer, buying about 60% of the globally traded soybeans. Most of those imported soybeans are genetically modified varieties produced in the U.S., Brazil and Argentina.
In November 2009, the agricultural ministry issued bio-safety certificates to two strains of pest-resistant GMO rice and one variety phytase corn, approving them for use on experimental plots. (Phytase can increase phosphorus absorption in animals and helps reduce feed costs and improve feed efficiency.) Commercial planting of GMO crops is still strictly prohibited, though European Union authorities claim to have found traces of genetically modified rice in imported rice products from China.
The government has not signaled any intention to allow large-scale planting of GMO grain crops, largely out of concern over the public reaction.
'It's not normal for a developing country like China not to develop advanced technologies,' Mr. Huang said.