GM food

Chinese general stokes debate on genetically modified food

Peng Guangqian claims 'Western conspiracy' in GM food imports

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 09 October, 2013, 3:06pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 09 October, 2013, 3:47pm

A Chinese general has added fuel to the already heated debate over the increasing amount of genetically modified (GM) food on dinner tables by blasting government efforts to make modified crops more widely available.

Adopting the cultivation of GM food would do China more harm than good, Peng Guangqian wrote in a Xinhua commentary on Wednesday. Peng holds a non-command rank equivalent of major-general of the People’s Liberation Army and is a frequent television talking head.

“What they call ‘solving the food problem for 1.3 billion people’ by relying on genetic engineering is a complete lie,” he wrote. “We can’t afford to move on a trial-and-error basis.”

Peng’s outspoken criticism reflects how the controversial issue has managed to overcome the usual bipartisan debate between liberals questioning government policy and conservatives staunchly supporting them.

The general blamed “Western multinational companies” for dumping GM crops in China and thus destroying the country’s traditional agriculture. Heilongjiang, the province bordering North Korea and Siberia, has turned from being a major producer of soybeans to being largely reliant on imports, he wrote.

Peng warned that these Western companies could assume a monopoly over crops planted in China. Quoting President Xi Jinping, Peng said that China should be self-sufficient in terms of food supply.

This is not the first time the general has spoken out against the import of GM food to China. In August, he caused a stir with his commentary in the Global Times, theorising a Western conspiracy to undermine Chinese food security.

The general’s commentary is a response to an interview of leading agricultural scientist Wu Kongming by China Radio International on Saturday.

The vice president of the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences said China could not afford to stick to traditional farming. The country’s only way out of an impending food shortage was to “use modern technology to support the development of our agriculture,” he said.

Wu has joined a growing number of experts speaking out in favour of ending the ban on genetic modification for staple grains such as rice and wheat. His interview was part of a three-part series by China Radio International praising the benefits of GM food.

Wu and Peng are among the many public personalities who have joined the debate on food security in China over the last months as the country grapples with regular reports of food tampering, desertification in the north and rampant pollution in industrial hubs.

Fang Zhouzi, a well-known campaigner against academic fraud, has spoken out in favour of GM food, arguing China should embrace the benefits of modern food engineering. On Tuesday, he sparred publicly with well-known national television host Cui Yongyuan, who categorically opposes GM food, on his Tencent microblog.

“You have no understanding of [genetic engineering], what is your right to question it?” wrote Fang. “You can choose to eat it, I can choose not to eat it,” Cui replied.

In September, 12 activist lawyers filed a formal information request to the Ministry of Environmental Protection demanding it to release a complete list of food items which contain GM ingredients.

China is already heavily reliant on the import of GM soy beans. Last year, 81 per cent of soy beans consumed in China were imported, according to customs data. The imported beans mostly originate from the US and Brazil, where GM crops are common. In June, China allowed the import of three new kinds of GM soybeans.

In August, a first large shipment of GM corn - 60,000 tonnes used as livestock feed - arrived in China.

The country has yet to allow commercial plantation of GM staple crops. So far, only the plantation of GM papaya and cotton has been allowed.