Chinese scientists chafe at GM snub by Gansu city

Local party secretary says genetic modification technology is threat to country, but scientists call his move 'illegal' and 'based on ignorance'

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 12 November, 2013, 3:13pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 13 November, 2013, 9:34am

In a rare open challenge to Beijing by a local government, the relatively small and remote city of Zhangye, Gansu province, has slapped a ban on genetically modified (GM) crops, products and technology.

No GM seeds, from cotton to papaya seed, are allowed to be produced or sold in the city of nearly 1.2 million, according to a new government regulation. Zhangye's sudden stance was all the more remarkable because Beijing has authorised planting of more than a dozen GM crops.

Under pressure from rapidly increasing food consumption, Beijing has used its mouthpieces, such as the People's Daily and China Central Television, to promote public understanding and acceptance of GM technology.

Scientists dismissed Zhangye's ban as "illegal" and the result of "ignorance" of basic science. But many environmentalists hailed the city's defiance and encouraged others to follow suit.

Chen Kegong, Zhangye's party secretary, recently defended the ban on the front page of the Zhangye Daily.

Chen said GM food could be used by rival countries as a biological weapon to "conquer China without a fight" - an argument long favoured by some hawkish Communist Party members - and that Zhangye's policy was to ensure food safety and the "national revival".

"[GM foods] are new species fundamentally different from natural products ... their role in ecological systems remains unknown," he said. "Science is only a summary of known knowledge ... the unknowns may lead to destruction."

The statement made headlines on major internet portals, such as Sohu and Sina, but was removed from all main pages by that afternoon.

An editor at Zhangye Daily said the newspaper sensed Beijing's unhappiness and would not report further on the ban.

Professor Huang Dafang, a plant geneticist at the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences, challenged the move.

"The State Council has never given local government power of choice over GM products," he said. "China is a centralised country. The local government must respect and obey Beijing's orders."

He said Zhangye was a large centre for corn seed production and the government might have imposed the ban to protect local businesses.

Once Beijing approved GM corn products developed by mainland scientists, the traditional seed industry might suffer heavily as GM producers claim their products have higher resistance to diseases and need less pesticide, reducing costs.

"If Zhangye has an issue with that, they should report it to the central government," Huang said. "[It seems] they have kept the Ministry of Agriculture in the dark. The party secretary will face consequences for his action."

Huang said mainland law gave peasants in Zhangye the freedom to choose any seeds that have been approved for commercial planting by the central government, so Zhangye's ban on GM products was illegal.

A researcher on rice genetics at the Chinese Academy of Sciences said Zhangye's ban reflected a lack of scientific education among some mainland government officials.

"The party secretary of Zhangye is not the only official who considers his personal philosophy superior to hard scientific findings," said the researcher, who declined to be named due to the sensitivity of the issue. "If China is to be managed by people like him who have little knowledge of science and no respect for law, our future will be very grim."

However Zhangye's stand struck a chord with many mainlanders, who have long been suspicious of GM food. Beijing still bans GM versions of staple grains such as rice and wheat.

"This is a big slap on the face to so-called professors and experts," an internet user from Shandong wrote on Sohu. "The Chinese dream needs upright, noble leaders like Chen. If China falls into the hands of scientists, we're in real danger."

Zhang Jing, the director of Greenpeace China's food and agriculture programme, welcomed Zhangye's action. "Each area has unique, traditional resources that need to be protected from the invasion of GM species," she said.

Zhangye's move would likely encourage other food-producing areas, such as Heilongjiang province, where local authorities have been considering a similar move, she said.