China is Building a Great Wall around its GM Crops.

China is Building a Great Wall around its GM Crops.

Aug 09, 2002

Ever play Chinese checkers? Each player races through moves and jumps to transfer a set of marbles from a home point to the opposite end of a pitted 6-pointed star game board. Watching biotechnology develop in China is a lot like seeing a game of Chinese checkers.

On the home front, China is rushing to be the world's biotech superpower. It is developing more biotechnology products than any country outside North America, including genetically modified food crops like rice, wheat, potatoes and peanuts. A survey by a team from the University of California found that Chinese research centers report developing 141 genetically modified plants.

At the opposite side of the game board, China is threatening to disrupt $1 billion in genetically modified U.S. soybean shipments into China because its officials claim they are worried about safety. Last year, China announced a fuzzy safety certification process. China also recently prohibited all foreign investment in its potentially lucrative biotech sector.

When U.S. Agricultural Secretary Ann Veneman visits China later this month, China's confusing labeling laws on genetically modified foods will be at the top of her agenda. China is eager to use biotech for crops like cotton to cut domestic production costs and to reduce farm worker pesticide exposures. And in a country where one-fifth of the globe's people live on only 7 percent of the world's arable land, China is investing heavily -- over $100 million annually -- in plant biotechnology, particularly in grain crops to help feed its burgeoning population.

But China is also placing ambiguous safety restrictions on more than 5 million tons of U.S. soybean imports to protect its domestic producers while appearing to abide by World Trade Organization rules. In the process, China is exploiting environmental and health fears raised in Europe over agricultural biotechnology. Over the long-run, this could cost China dearly.

Governments, industry and people around the world are asking if the costs of this technology and public fears about its use outweigh biotechnology's promised benefits of boosting global crop yields dramatically, helping to feed the world's hungry and reducing environmentally harmful pesticide applications. In the year 2000, worldwide plantings of transgenic crops -- mostly cotton, corn and soybeans -- exceeded 100 million acres. This marks a 25-fold increase since they were introduced in 1996. But 99 percent of these crops are grown in just four countries: the United States, Canada, Argentina and China.

Europe has had a de facto moratorium on new GM product approvals for four years and is finalizing new GM food labeling and "farm-to-fork" traceability measures that threaten American exports. U.S. trade representative Robert Zoellick keeps warning that America will file a WTO suit that could ignite a trade war over this issue, jeopardizing over $16 billion in U.S.-European Union agricultural trade.

The U.S. position is that GM food is safe. As evidence, Zoellick cites a report on 15 years of EU-sponsored research costing more than $60 million that shows that biotech food and crops appear to pose no greater health or environmental risks than conventional ones. Many leading developing countries -- like Brazil and Kenya -- have not yet approved the commercial planting of GM crops. Some because they feel they lack the regulatory infrastructure, and others because they are afraid of having their products shut out of the profitable European market.

China, with its strong commitment to biotechnology, has a lot at stake in this contentious debate. If it maintains its ambiguous biotech policies, China could find its efforts to develop and eventually export biotechnology products severely limited. Its current actions encourage efforts to put in place new measures more restrictive of biotechnology than the international regimes China is now so adroitly exploiting.

At the end of this biotech checker game, China could find itself unable to use or move its marbles.

Related Links