文章 Articles

Beware the GM giants

Biotech firms are rapidly gaining ground in global agriculture. China must take a stand or else face risks to food security, argues Jiang Gaoming.

Article image

Greenpeace recently discovered genetically modified (GM) ingredient Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) in Nestlé-branded baby cereal in China. According to the organisation, Nestlé has promised not to use GM ingredients in the European Union, Australia, Russia and Brazil, but has different standards in China, where it refuses to make the same commitment. Its report has sparked off another round of public debate over the safety of GM food.

The Chinese authorities are pushing ahead with research into, and application of, GM technology. Many experts believe its benefits outweigh any harm it may cause, describing the changes as a “second green revolution” that will ensure food security. Faced with this blind optimism, I find I must protest. Besides the potential impact on ecosystems and food safety, I fear that the large scale planting of GM crops, particularly those controlled by multinationals, will affect China’s food sovereignty and even food security. Poorly managed, it may rock the very foundations of China’s ability to feed itself. A look at agriculture in Argentina will illustrate.

Until 1996, traditional agriculture in Argentina provided food security for the nation, with no need for government subsidy. But the introduction of GM soya beans has virtually destroyed the industry. Fields used for growing lentils, peas and mung beans have been turned over wholesale to GM soya-bean production. Crops from Monsanto, an agriculture biotech company based in the United States, accounted for 99% of soya bean production in Argentina by 2002. The country’s unthinking adoption of foreign inventions meant it ignored the need to develop its own technology and, by the time it woke up to the threat to its own food security, it was too late to stop using Monsanto’s crops.

In fact, the widespread use of GM crops did not, as experts imagined, cut down on the use of pesticides and herbicides and improve rural environments; quite the opposite. GM soya-bean crops actually need special treatment; besides the usual liberal quantities of chemicals and fertiliser, a weed-killer named Roundup is used. This chemical treats wild plants and even other crops as weeds, leaving only the biotech firm’s own soya-bean plants alive. Roundup killed off Argentina’s other crops and, according to some, caused mutations in livestock. In humans, long-term contact with the chemical has also been found to causes health problems, including nausea, diarrhoea, vomiting and skin damage.

Argentina is the proof that multinational biotech firms can cause a nation to lose its food sovereignty. But this has not halted the advance of such firms; rather, they are continuing their global expansion. For long, Brazil resisted GM technology but the companies have allegedly bought off officials, planted large areas with GM crops and put pressure on government. Today, traditional agriculture in Brazil is under immediate threat.

Having conquered Argentina and Brazil, the GM giants started their attack on China’s farming sector, where there are huge profits to be made. The US Department of Agriculture supports the overseas expansion of biotech firms such as Monsanto and DuPont and even helps promote their products in countries including China, where they claim their “Roundup Ready 2” will increase harvests by up to 11%. In the second quarter of 2009, Monsanto’s sales income reached US$4 billion (27 billion yuan), up 8% year-on-year. Gross profits were US$2.5 billion (17.1 billion yuan), up 14% on the previous year.

Huge quantities of GM seeds have “invaded” China, causing great damage to local agriculture. China is the largest market for US soya-bean exports and, according to an industry website, imported 15.4 million tonnes of GM-soya beans in 2008 – 41% of total imports. Meanwhile, higher costs mean domestic soya-bean crops fail to sell. Last year non-GM soya-bean crops in Heilongjiang, in north-east China, were selling for less than the cost of planting, and 40% of the harvest did not sell at all. Sixty-eight soya-bean processing firms in the province have ceased work, while supermarkets in provincial capital Harbin stock GM-soya bean products almost exclusively.

Once the United States has control of China’s staple foods, China will have little say in the matter. The GM seeds imported by China are planting problems for the future. But the GM giants’ ambitions do not stop with the seeds – it is China’s 1.2 million square kilometres of farmland that gets them excited. If they can extract a few extra yuan for each kilogram of seeds sold, there will be hundreds of millions of US dollars in profit to be made, even before they start selling the associated chemicals, pesticides, fertilisers and herbicides.

This is another Opium War; an expropriation taking place behind a high-technology smokescreen. The GM giants estimate that, by 2012, the agricultural biotechnology market will allow them to take home US$7.3 billion to US$7.5 billion (49.8 billion yuan to 51.2 billion yuan), leaving China with the ecosystem and food security risks inherent in an addiction to a “new opium”.

So what should China do? The government has already invested 26 billion yuan (US$3.8 billion) in attempting to keep up with US biotech firms but this does not get to the root of the problem. The real threat to food security is not in the seeds, but in the people. Cheap grain prices and high production costs mean that farmers abandon their fields for urban jobs; that is the real threat to food security. When frost, drought and pest-resistant GM seeds appear on the market, farmers are naturally happy to spend a little extra to save some work. But, even if yields increase in line with expert predictions, there will still only be an extra US$6 (41 yuan) of income per 667 square metres of rice. There will be no great changes in food production and we will have paid the licensing fees for nothing.

China has always been an agricultural nation; a state built on the soil, by the farmers. Increasing food production requires restoration of degraded land, the recirculation of nutrients, better ecological balance and increased incomes for farmers, who will then grow more crops. If we ignore these facts and blindly adopt GM technology, we are simply giving up our food sovereignty. We need to learn lessons from Argentina and Brazil and be alert to the dangers of “biological invasion” by the GM giants.

Jiang Gaoming is a professor and PhD tutor at the Chinese Academy of Sciences' Institute of Botany. He is also vice secretary-general of China Society of Biological Conservation and board member of China Environmental Culture Promotion Association.

Homepage image by DawnOne

Now more than ever…

chinadialogue is at the heart of the battle for truth on climate change and its challenges at this critical time.

Our readers are valued by us and now, for the first time, we are asking for your support to help maintain the rigorous, honest reporting and analysis on climate change that you value in a 'post-truth' era.

Support chinadialogue

发表评论 Post a comment

评论通过管理员审核后翻译成中文或英文。 最大字符 1200。

Comments are translated into either Chinese or English after being moderated. Maximum characters 1200.

评论 comments

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous




GM is same as Opium

The Good Professor Jiang is correct GM introduction into agriculture is like Opium to human. Not only will the PRC agriculture forever be a slave into Nestle et al as seed source the drug moves lateral into other crops and natives. These type of people have no families or concern for the historians of tomorrow. As an Australian serving here in PRC I can assure all the experiments in Australia proved GM is forever ownership by seed seller.
Nature did not need the Monsanto Nestles. Lets clean up the environment and them
Robert Vincin Beijing

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



Money is plenty, people are foolish, come quickly!

After reading Professor Jiang's article I feel worried! Being a regular person, I have been concerned about the issue of GM all along. Actually the crux of the matter lies in the way in which we encourage our economic growth, it is a dangerous growth model which does not consider the method or the consequences, which keeps on exploiting until the well runs dry - all in the name of GDP growth.
Corruption has run through the entire 'opening up' period, and the more successful we have been, the more it has intensified. It is very difficult to imagine our corrupt officials being capable of seeking profit on behalf of the people. Our soy bean plants and related industry are today already heading toward decline, the key problem being how much further can we go down this path? GM oil which is sold in supermarkets is cheaper than non-GM oil by more than half the price. When ordinary people see this low-price oil they will buy it more frequently because in reality the price will make people give way to temptation. At present, what is for sale in supermarktes is not restricted only to GM soy bean oil, there is also GM peanut oil, GM sunflower oil...We frequently eat soy bean products, like miso, soy sauce and soy milk, these are all made from soy bean, is the basic product not also genetically modified?
Some of our scholars say that GM produce is safe, but how have they come to his conclusion? How many tests are there supporting this conclusion? Why does the European Union, Australia and Russia reject GM? What degree of knowledge do we have at the human genetic level? In this we are all very much the same, even ordinary people feel that before such confusing issues are decided we need to receive concrete answeres, why do we as the population of such a great nation rush in head-first? By wronging one person, we may give life to hundreds of millions of people. Still to this day we make man-made things, and this is not yet based on scientific evidence, the wrong decision could mean paying a heavy price. The wrong policy will make our people pay a price which is small as of yet! Are we really this kind of country: money is plenty, people are foolish?

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



I hope this article will be widely circulated

Thank you for this article Professor Jiang, it is short but sharp, showing the great hidden dangers of GM engineering, and that this crisis is looming ever closer.
I hope that this article can be widely circulated, especially within related government agencies and departments. I strongly recommend that it be sent to the 'Qiushi' journal website, and I hope that it will attract high regard among the authorities.
I also hope that Professor Jiang will once again research this issue deeply and will take one step further in expounding and explaining what we already know and what we do not yet know about GM engineering in the fields of ecology, agriculture and health.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



Ecological hackers

We are happy to count the money from the hackers after being hacked, are we?

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



Underlying principle not nationality

But would attitudes change if it were Chinese, not US or EU multi-nationals which owned the GM technology (and some do)?

The deplorable underlying principles of GM agriculture are more relevant than the nationality of those promoting it.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous




The only thing that I can do

The only thing that I can do as a consumer is to boycott GM foods. When buying soy bean oil, I only buy soy bean oil labelled as "GM free".
(Comment translated by Matthew Bailey)

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



I am confused

As an ordinary consumer, I am really confused by all kinds of media coverage of genetic modification -- it appears that the government is strongly backing the wider use of genetically modified crops; but currently nothing is conclusive about how gm food impacts humans; on one hand big companies such as Monsanto are very active, on the other it is said that China has many patents related with genetic modification.

Despite the bustle of all this, I am still not sure whom I should listen to now!

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous


btw, 这文章放在环球时报还比较适合。

Choose the less of 2 devils

GM is a new technology with some uncertainty. All agruicultral techologies have both pros and cons, and we can only choose the ones with less harms. The way to evalutate the harms is not by our imagination, but through a strict and transparent system of food security monitoring.

By the way, this article is more suitable for 'Global Times'.