Soya bean imports revive fears in China about genetically modified food
Web users are wary of genetically modified beans that have gained prompt official approval
The Ministry of Agriculture's recent approval of imports of three new kinds of genetically modified soya bean has sparked concern over safety assessments and reignited debate on the mainland over the safety of GM food.
A day after Xinhua reported the approvals, the National Business Daily ran a front-page story headlined "Doubt and suspicions over GM soya beans: did the government approve import at lightning speed?"
The report said the ministry did not get the safety certificate for the RR2 soya bean until as late as May 20, less than three weeks before imports were approved.
RR2 is one of two new varieties of GM soya bean owned by US-based seed-engineering giant Monsanto that have been approved for import.
One of the varieties has obtained approval for cultivation in nations including Canada, Japan and the United States, while the other has gained approval for cultivation in Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay.
The ministry said on its website: "From the start of the application process to the final approval, the time taken was about three years, demonstrating the government's prudence."
Many internet users criticised the decision. One microblogger wrote that agriculture officials were happy to feed ordinary people GM food "because the food they eat is provided specially for them and is genuine green food".
"Of course they swear that GM food is safe to eat, but they're letting ordinary people become laboratory rats," the post, later deleted by censors, continued.
Yu Jiangli, a Beijing-based food and agriculture campaigner with Greenpeace, said long-term trials were necessary to prove that GM food was safe to eat and would not damage the environment permanently.
"GM food will have an irreversible impact on the ecosystem and biodiversity, and the health impacts for humans and animals are unknown," she said.
The ministry did not respond to a request for comment, but two days after the soya bean announcement, Peng Yufa, deputy director of the National Transgenic Crop Committee, told state media the imported soya beans would be made into cooking oil. "The final product will not contain transgenic protein," he said, "so there is no food safety threat."
Deng Zhixi , deputy director of the ministry's Research Centre for Rural Economy, later gave a press conference in which he accused the public of ignorance.
"Questioning the import of GM food arises from ignorance and a lack of understanding of the science of genetic modification," he said. "People don't understand it and just rely on a feeling that it is bad for them. In fact, this is not the case at all."
Deng said the approval of the new soya beans was carried out in strict accordance with legal procedure. "There are now more than 60 countries using [the soya beans]; China is by no means the only one," he said.
Web users were quick to express anger at his words. "Everyone has the right to question the safety of their food," one microblogger wrote. "This government official has confused 'asking questions' with 'ignorance'. His behaviour betrays real ignorance."
Another microblogger suggested government officials take the lead by eating GM foods themselves. "In a few years you can be the proof they are safe!"
GM foods, especially soya beans, are becoming increasingly hard for mainlanders to avoid. China is the world's largest buyer of soya beans, importing up to 80 per cent of its supplies, mostly from the US and Brazil.
At least 93 per cent of all soya bean crops in the US are GM, and GM seeds have also been widely adopted in Brazil.
Shirley Li, vice-president of the Beijing Organic Farm Company, the mainland's largest domestic producer of organic foods, said basic ingredients such as cooking oil and soy sauce all contained GM products. "People have been eating these products for years without knowing. It's very unethical," she said.
The mainland already imports five other varieties of GM soya bean, as well as GM corn, canola and sugar beets.
Domestic GM research and development is supported with government funding.
GM cotton and papaya are grown commercially. The four million hectares of land on the mainland under GM crops constitute the sixth-largest planting area in the world.
In March, state media reported the introduction of GM crops was "a crucial part of China's efforts to feed a fifth of the world's population using less than a tenth of the world's arable land".
The State Council released a draft grain law for public scrutiny in February last year, saying it was aimed at ensuring grain security "by stabilising grain output and intensifying control and supervision over the market".
The draft law includes regulations on the research, testing, production, distribution, and import and export of GM grain seeds, and bars the use of any GM technology without government permission. It was well received by anti-GM campaigners.
But some scientists said it would limit mainland research in the field. "It's unscientific … because many GM research projects involve the application, dispersal and production [of GM food]," Huang Dafang, from the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences' Biotechnology Research Institute, told the 21st Century Business Herald.
Nothing more has been heard of the law.
"There is not much transparent information," Greenpeace's Yu said. "I am also very interested in its progress."