China’s food safety authorities have really been ramping up their charm offensive in the last month. Not only have bodies like the China Food and Drug Administration been seen a flurry of activity in introducing new regulations and policing their patch, but the government has also been looking to win hearts and minds to back the GM cause.
The Chinese citizenry have for a long time been wavering between ambivalent and negative towards the idea of the widespread harvesting of genetically modified crops, but with the shadow of dwindling food security on the horizon, and fears that one day it might struggle to feed the world’s biggest national population, the government clearly sees GM food production as a means to an end.
China currently allows the commercial production of GM tomatoes, cotton, papaya and bell pepper, and permits the import of GM corn, soybean, canola and cotton for use in animal feed and other non-human consumption.
In November 2009, the Ministry of Agriculture granted bio-safety certificates – which allow for domestic field trials – for two pest-resistant varieties of GMO rice and one variety of corn.
Although China’s rice production is still abundant, this year is seeing a decrease in output of the crop of 0.7% from 2012 to 202.8m tonnes– the first time this has happened since 2003 after a decade of stable growth. Meanwhile, the rice yield per hectare has declined by 1.7% to 6.7 tonnes this year.
With adverse weather and flooding across the major rice regions of Hunan, Jiangxi and Zheijang, China is becoming increasingly dependent on imports, which amounted to between 500,000 and 600,000 tonnes of rice last year.
During a visit by Premier Li Keqiang to Bangkok this month, China agreed to raise the amount of rice to be imported from Thailand over the next five years to 1m tonnes per year, even though the country accounts for 26% of the world’s rice production.
"After decades of efforts to pursue higher outputs, China's rice sector is seeing a decline in competitiveness," Ding Shengjun, a senior researcher at the Academy of the State Administration of Grain, told China’s national news agency recently.
"The government has realised that the country's rice farmland needs a break after years of heavy use of fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides."
By its very nature, China’s government doesn’t like to be beholden to any other country, and the announcement to increase imports would have stuck in Li’s craw.
It will therefore comes as no surprise that the government’s PR wonks have put the genetically modified at the top of their agenda, and positive news stories have been coming thick and fast in media briefings and stories in the state-run press.
It is becoming clear the government feels it can stave off its potential dependence on imports by one day using more productive strains of rice in its own harvest. But first, it must win over a population that is more vocal about food issues than possibly any other area of protest.
Last weekend, most state-controlled media picked up on what would be seen by most as a puff and far from newsworthy piece about a group of pro-GM activists at Huazhong Agriculture University offering taste tests of food products made from genetically modified “golden rice”, which is grown by the university to produce more beta-carotene.
According to Xinhua, the demo, which has also been staged in 20 other cities, was great fun for all involved.
“The volunteers savoured cakes and porridge made from GM rice,” the news agency reported, under the banner of “China Exclusive”.
“My wife buys modified soy oil all the time, even after she became pregnant months ago," Zhu, one of the participants, told the wire.
Also in the news recently was a statement by the Ministry of Agriculture that congratulated a scientist at the Chinese Academy for Agricultural Sciences for mapping the genetic code of the cucumber. The ministry was especially pleased that the research was published in the influential journal, Nature Genetics, showing that it is now happy for China’s breakthroughs in the field to be admired on an international level.
And earlier this month, the ministry had taken umbrage towards some stories published in the media, and even distributed a lengthy rebuttal of negative comments made by an army major general about GM in the Global Times newspaper. In its missive, a government-appointed scientist reported that “genetically modified crop yield is an objective reality”.
So what’s next for this charm offensive? Some say that the recent positive press might be a signal that the government is preparing to open the door to domestic commercial production of GMO crops, as the Beijing News reported this week, citing an unnamed official from the agriculture ministry.
“The next step will be to increase scientific propaganda for our GMO biotechnology industry, to create an environment of good public opinion, and to accelerate GMO regulatory amendments,” the paper reported.