One is the world’s largest military force, the other sets policies for Chinese arable land. But when it comes to genetically modified crops, it seems that the People’s Liberation Army and the Ministry of Agriculture don’t exactly see eye to eye.
Since late last month representatives of both institutions have been involved in a very public spat over the safety of transgenic crops and whether China should allow the import of such food.
The first salvo came from Peng Guangqian, a major general in the People’s Liberation Army, who wrote an article warning that genetically modified (GM) seeds imported from abroad could be part of a plot to “conquer” China.
Comparing GM rice and soya beans to the opium that the British used to weaken China in the nineteenth century, Peng accused GM giants Monsanto and DuPont of targeting Asian countries in order to get them hooked on their products.
“Western powers do not allow their own staple crops to become genetically modified but they pursue these Chinese staples as their ultimate strategic goal,” Peng warned in an essay he published in the Global Times.
“If things change and the West cuts our food supply, will 1.3 billion Chinese be able to live by sucking on the northwest wind?” he asked, implying national security was at stake.
Peng wrote the article in response to the agriculture ministry’s approval of the import of three new varieties of GM soya bean in June, as well as the potential sanctioning of GM corn purchases from Argentina.
The Chinese public has been cautious of GM foods and the country has some of the strictest laws in the world governing their import and cultivation. But as China becomes richer, food consumption is rising and the country’s antiquated agricultural sector (see WiC159) is failing to keep pace with demand.
Accordingly, that’s led China to soften its stance – sourcing an increasing amount of food from overseas, including buying 60% of the world’s globally traded GM soya, which is turned into cooking oil and animal feed (current laws forbid humans from consuming the bean directly).
Though the messages are mixed, it seems that some in the Ministry of Agriculture would like to see more imports of GM crops – or even permit Chinese farmers start producing them commercially (to improve yields). China only grows GM crops at the moment as part of research programmes.
A few days after General Peng published his allegations, the agriculture ministry hit back, with an unusually forthright interview with Lin Min, the director of the Biotechnology Research Institute of the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences.
Lin responded to Peng’s claims one by one, dismissing them in undiplomatic terms.
“To suggest that GM crops are designed to harm and that they form part of an American trap is a conspiracy theory that stems from Cold War thinking,” he said, before accusing the general of displaying a “lack of rational analysis” and relying on data that has already been proven as false.
The claim that consumption of GM food increased the incidence of cancer was based on one such discredited report, Lin said, and the argument that transgenic food led to infertility “was even more absurd”.
“The indisputable fact is this: the world has been involved in genetically modified commercial applications for 17 years… and in that time there has not been one confirmed example of a safety issue,” Lin concluded.
Netizens pondered the war of words, although public confidence in GM food wasn’t wholly forthcoming.
“Lin Min’s words don’t answer Peng Guangqian’s points,” wrote one contributor on China’s popular microblogging website Sina Weibo.
Another said she would be happy to eat GM food, but only if she saw Lin eat it for three years first. “The Chinese people are not laboratory mice,” another added.
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