China Shuts Down GE Rice?
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China Shuts Down GE Rice?

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China’s State Council has released a ground-breaking draft proposal of a grain law that establishes legislation restricting research, field trials, production, sale, import and export of genetically engineered grain seeds. The draft stipulates that no organization or person can employ unauthorized GE technology in any major food product in China.

“This is actually a world-first initiative that deals with GE food legislation at state law level,” according to my colleague, Fang Lifeng, a food and agriculture campaigner with Greenpeace.

“There are currently too many loopholes and weak control over GE food and technology in China. This law needs to clarify what ‘relevant laws and regulations’ can be applied to regulate GE crops. We urge legislators to accelerate the legislation of Genetically Engineered Organisms Bio-safety Law, and also to enhance the supervision of GE food and other products. Otherwise, this law will only be paying lip service,” Fang warned.

The grain law will likely have significant ramifications for China’s rice, the country's most important staple food. The origins of rice cultivation can be traced to the valleys of the Yangtze River, with some estimates suggesting cultivation began over 7,000 years ago. It dictates the lives of millions of farmers in the Chinese countryside and feeds over a billion Chinese citizens each year. And using experimental GE technology to meddle with such a widely eaten crop could spell disaster – ecologically, financially and for human health.

This latest announcement comes after a highly successful and complex seven year campaign by activists to keep GE rice out of the country’s food market.

In 2004, Greenpeace activists were in Yunnan, visiting farmers who employed traditional Chinese farming methods such as when they got wind that Chinese scientists had applied to commercialize four varieties of Chinese GE rice. While the announcement didn’t mean any immediate commercialization of GE rice – the rice would still have to pass many more stages of approval – it was a major step towards commercialization. “I was totally shocked,” said Sze Pang Cheung, now Campaign Director of Greenpeace.

Cheung and his team set about unraveling the complex web of players involved in the push to commercialize. “For a scientist to have a high level of credibility they need to be separated from approval bodies and industry,” Cheung says. “But in China, GE scientists are such a close knit gang that the people sitting on approval boards for research money, biosafety boards that approve product safety, the scientists at public research institutes, and those at biotech companies who plan to produce and profit from GE rice are either one and the same, or closely connected.”

Cheung says he also sent a team undercover to Wuhan, Hubei’s provincial capital, where they had heard rumors that GE rice was already being illegally farmed. The activists would ask around for any new strains of pest-resistant rice, buy a few bags of these, and test the samples back in their hotel rooms. The quick-testers came up positive. Farmers in the region were already unwittingly buying and growing these seeds, which meant GE rice was already being sold in China – completely illegally.

China is a country where money talks, nationalism is rampant and people take their food seriously. And it would be multi-national companies – not Chinese farmers – who would stand to profit from GE rice from technology and patents. Never before had a country’s staple food gone GE. Monsanto had tried and failed to commercialize GE wheat in Canada, and there were fears they were hoping China would become the first guinea pig, opening the gate to genetic experiments with staple crops.

All of these concerns – the tangled web of scientists with conflicting interests, the government's proven inability to control GE from “infecting” the market, and the viable threat of national food security – were getting airplay in the Chinese media. Despite this, and the concerns of the public, by the end of 2009 it was looking all but inevitable that China’s rice would go GE. The government, long after the fact, announced that a secret multi-ministerial meeting had passed two GE rice lines even though they had not received biosafety certificates at the time.

With no time to lose, the campaign team stepped up its anti-GE message and received help from the most unlikely of sources: Chinese state magazine Outlook Weekly published a front-page GE-rice debate issue. Then Chinese politicians began raising GE doubts, followed by a string of Chinese celebrities including Mao Zedong’s daughter and the father of China’s hybrid rice, Yuan Longping. Several Chinese scholars signed a petition urging caution on GE rice and submitted it to the annual parliament meeting.

A media storm soon broke out: TV, magazines, newspapers, online media were all joining the debate. Greenpeace also exposed Wal-Mart for allegedly selling GE rice and filed a legal case against them. The team beamed a GE shopper’s guide to half a million Chinese consumers through mobile and Internet services. Chinese consumers joined the campaign, ringing up companies and demanding they go non-GE. Two huge corporations, Cofco and Yihai Kerry, made non-GE pledges and a string of supermarkets also pledged not to use GE ingredients in their own brands and with their fresh unpacked fruits, vegetables and grains.

The tide towards GE rice had made a remarkable reversal. In September 2011, China’s major financial weekly, the Economic Observer, quoted an information source close to the Agriculture Ministry saying that for the next 5 to 10 years, China had suspended the commercialization of GE rice. This latest announcement puts further restrictions on the growth of GE rice in the nation.

“China’s money must be spent on supporting food that is safe for human consumption and the production of which has taken into account environmental impacts,” Fang says. “And GE technology has clearly failed to do either.”

Monica Tan is a writer and Beijing-based web editor for Greenpeace East Asia. 

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