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.

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.

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