China should impose tougher checks on genetically modified soy imports

Kamilia Lahrichi says action needed amid warnings of herbicide overuse

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 21 October, 2014, 5:38pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 22 October, 2014, 5:22am

As the international community raised awareness of food security on World Food Day last week, 1.3 billion Chinese people are facing critical health risks due to imports of genetically modified soybeans, including those from Argentina, the third-largest producer and exporter of soybeans.

Soybean oil is widely used in Chinese households and restaurants because it is cheap. In 2013, Beijing imported over 63 million tonnes of genetically modified soybeans from the US, Brazil and Argentina.

About 98 per cent of Argentina's crops are Roundup Ready crops, which are genetically modified to be resistant to the flagship glyphosate herbicide of US-based seed giant Monsanto.

Worryingly for Chinese customers, Argentinian farmers use more than twice as much pesticide per acre as US farmers do. Hence, residues of this powerful herbicide find their way into Chinese diets, such as soy milk and tofu.

The World Health Organisation says that 1kg of soybeans should contain less than 20 milligrams of glyphosate. Nevertheless, Argentina's soy exports to China contain 100 milligrams of glyphosate per kilogram, according to Dr Medardo Avila-Vazquez, an Argentinian paediatrician and specialist on the topic. He warned earlier this month that even "20mg is a very big quantity of poison in food".

One problem is that Beijing authorities do not make stipulations about the level of glyphosate per gram that soy should contain. This has adverse consequences, as herbicides such as glyphosate have been linked to rising cancer rates, birth defects and other diseases. In Argentina's Chaco province, for example, birth malformations quadrupled after the country boosted agricultural biotechnology.

Policymakers in Argentina deny agrochemicals' detrimental impact on health and the environment because biotechnology has fostered economic development.

Notwithstanding that Monsanto and proponents of biotechnology have systemically attacked the credibility of scientific research showing the harm herbicides can cause, the danger remains real.

Andres Carrasco, an Argentinian expert in embryonic development, found in his 2010 study that women often have up to five miscarriages in a row in regions where GM soybeans are produced.

In China, too, there is growing awareness of this issue. One of the most critical Chinese voices against genetically modified crops, Lieutenant General Mi Zhenyu, the former deputy director of the Chinese Academy of Military Science, has blamed genetically modified soybeans for various diseases among Chinese people.

As one of the most important markets, China can play a crucial role in curbing the production of GM organisms and guaranteeing food security. "If the Chinese say they are not happy with the quality of soy, [Argentine producers] will spray less," said Dr Avila-Vazquez.

In fact, Beijing has already paved the way for a more food-secure planet. For instance, it prohibited the commercial distribution of genetically modified grains due to public concern over the health risks. The Chinese are also worried about relying heavily on biotechnology developed by foreign companies like Monsanto.

One significant step towards ensuring food security was the People's Liberation Army's decision to ban genetically modified organisms for its troops earlier this year.

And, last year, Taiwan began pushing to revise the levels of glyphosate in genetically modified soybean imports - a key step Beijing should take as well.

Kamilia Lahrichi is a foreign correspondent based in Argentina, and is the recipient of the 2014 United Nations Foundation's "Global Issues" Journalism Fellowship. www.kamilialahrichi.com