Sina Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter, has been awash with criticisms of the Ministry’s of Agriculture’s decision to green light imports of three more strains of genetically modified (GM) soybeans. A picture of mice with swollen bodies which was said to be the result of GM food testing went viral online.
Though the imported soybeans for animal feed (two of the strains are from Monsanto, the other from BASF) would not be consumed as food directly, the approval, announced just a few days before China’s food safety awareness week, aroused public concern over China’s already tainted food safety record.
“Importing GM soybeans effects not just the country’s economy and trade but also ecological resources and public health. Therefore, the government should be cautious and not blindly import GM soybeans,” said Yu Jiangli, a Greenpeace Food and Agriculture campaigner.
Yu’s warning echoes the Chinese public’s sceptical attitude towards GM food. An online survey conducted by Sina (a popular online portal) showed that 78% of all respondents thought GM food could have negative impacts on people’s health; a further 85% of respondents said they would not consider buying GM products.
The public’s concern is not shared by some officials and experts. Dai Jingrui from the Chinese Academy of Engineering told the media that the public’s concern for GM food’s safety was “completely unnecessary”. He said the public’s fear was fuelled by long term demonization of GM food.
Deng Zhixi, vice director of the agriculture ministry’s centre for agricultural economy was equally dismissive. In an interview with China Radio International he said that ignorance was the major cause of the public’s concern and stressed that, “Now, more than 60 countries are using them [the three new strains of GM soybean] for eating purposes.” He added that the food safety assessment was properly conducted before the ministry granted approval.
But the approval process itself has become a subject of scrutiny. An official statement issued by the Ministry of Agriculture seen by the National Business Daily indicates that as of 20 May 2013 the ministry had not received an application for the Monsanto RR2 Pro soybean, one of the three GM soybeans approved for import.
As soon as the public and the media began to question the legitimacy of the swift approval, the agriculture ministry said the approval process took about three years. In a press briefing they commented that “Our safety assessment of these three new strains of GM soybeans has been very careful. It has strictly followed our country’s current laws and regulations.”
Greenpeace’s Yu Jiangli was unconvinced by this response.
“The self-contradicting reply reflects the need for openness in decision-making process and the importance of public participation. On one hand, they enable the public to scrutinise (governmental decisions); on the other, they improve the government’s credibility.”