The Latest Threat to China-US Relations: GMOs


China has rejected 545,000 tons of U.S. corn imports after an unapproved genetically modified strain (MIR162) was discovered among the crops. This marks the third time in the past two months that a corn shipment has been turned away by China after the MIR162 strain was detected, hinting at a growing problem. The debate over GMOs has the potential to seriously affect U.S.-China relations in the coming year.

Although China’s government is generally supportive of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), the specific MIR162 strand (designed to increase plant resistance to insect damage) has not been approved by China’s Ministry of Agriculture. In the past two months, Chinese inspectors have discovered the unauthorized strain in corn shipments to Shenzhen, Fujian, Shandong, Guangdong, Zhejjiang, and Macao. Overall, according to Xinhua, China has turned away 720,000 tons of corn in three separate incidents over the past two months. The problem seems to be growing, as both the number of affected shipments and the total amount of rejected corn increased each time.

In response, China’s quality inspection office has called on the U.S. to ensure stricter oversight of future exports so that unapproved GMOs are not sent on to China. Meanwhile, the U.S. is pushing China to speed up its approval process for genetically modified strains of corn. MIR162, which have been approved by other major corn importers, has been waiting for Chinese approval for two years, according to U.S. officials.

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On the surface, it seems like another typical U.S.-China trade dispute. However, the debate over GMOs is complex and taps into deeply rooted fears over food security and safety. China’s government recognizes the widespread public concern over the safety of genetically modified food. Still, having food sources genetically modified to withstand trying environmental conditions is of huge interest to the Chinese government, which is increasingly concerned with food security. The government is currently rolling out a publicity push, trying to convince its citizens that GM food is, in fact, safe to eat. The result has been a pitched battle: environmental and health advocates vs scientists and Chinese government officials.

Exhibit A for the defense: “We can’t afford any delay for a push to industrialize the planting of GM rice, or it will do harm to the country,” 60 scholars from the Chinese Academy of Science and the Chinese Academy of Engineering wrote in a letter to China’s leaders.

But the prosecution objects: “GM products can have irreversible effects on the ecosystem and biodiversity,” Yu Jiangli of Greenpeace told Global Times. “Besides, the health risks of the products are unknown.”

The debate made headlines last year, when it was revealed that a joint China-U.S. experiment had fed genetically-modified rice to schoolchildren without their parents’ knowledge or consent. The rice, dubbed “golden rice,” was genetically modified to help prevent Vitamin A deficiencies among children. Tufts University, the U.S. partner in the experiment, has since acknowledged that the study violated its ethics review procedures. Despite an apology from Tufts, and the dismissal of several Chinese scientists involved in approving the experiment, parents remain angry. Many are worried that negative effects might show up later. “Till now, the GM test has not had any impacts on my child, but there is no guarantee that there will no impacts in the future,” one parent told Global Times in October, five years after the study actually took place.

In some ways, the debate in China mirrors similar arguments going on around the world. An in-depth New York Times article published in July outlined the debate as it exists in the U.S.:

[A]dvocates of the technology say it could also help provide food for a fast-growing population on a warming planet by endowing crops with more nutrients, or the ability to thrive in drought, or to resist pests. Leading scientific organizations have concluded that shuttling DNA between species carries no intrinsic risk to human health or the environment, and that such alterations can be reliably tested…  

Critics worry that such crops carry risks not yet detected, and distrust the big agrochemical companies that have produced the few in wide use.

This summary would also be an accurate description of the opposing forces at play in China — if you substitute distrust for “big agrochemical companies” with a general distrust of the United States. In fact, some have publicly raised suspicions that GMOs are part of a U.S. plot to a) create Chinese dependence on Western food suppliers, b) give Chinese consumers cancer, or c) all of the above.

Between these two factors — skepticism of the health factor and distrust of the United States — the questions of GMOs does not stand to be solved anytime soon. As the debate rages, it could start to seriously impact U.S.-China relations.

U.S. agricultural exports to China are big business. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, China “accounts of 18 percent of U.S. agricultural export sales.” Further, as a research study by the University of Florida put it, U.S. agricultural exports are “one bright spot in the US–China trade deficit,” as in 2010 the U.S. had a $14.1 billion trade surplus in agricultural products. For the past three years, China has been the top market for U.S. agricultural exports, resulting in a total value of $23.5 billion in fiscal year 2013. However, this year China is expected to slip to the number two slot, behind Canada, and trade values for fiscal year 2014 are expected to drop by $2 billion.

Obviously, anything that could threaten this robust trade is going to be of serious concern to the United States. The GMO debate raging within China definitely has the potential to affect agricultural trade. The Chinese government is under public pressure to crackdown on GMO imports for both nationalistic and health concerns. This makes it difficult for China to approve new GMO strains like MIR162 — even though in general the government supports genetic modification of food products. In turn, this frustrates the politically-powerful U.S. agricultural industry and could damage one of the consistent bright spots in U.S.-China trade.

Currently, agricultural trade is one of the few areas where U.S.-China interests align almost perfectly. The U.S. has agricultural surpluses to sell, and China is always interested in securing new food sources to feed its 1.3 billion people. The debate over GMOs throws a wrench in this alignment, and there is little either government can about it — despite educational campaigns in both countries, grassroots opposition to GMOs continues to grow. And as public pressure grows, so does the number of U.S. GM exports that are sent back home, potentially turning an historical strength in the trade relationship into yet another source of discord.

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