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« How should China feed itself? | Main | The role of agriculture in rural China »

March 18, 2010

Genetically engineered foods a hot topic in China

IATP President Jim Harkness is blogging from Beijing.

As I mentioned in the last post, genetically engineered (GE) crops are a hot news topic in China right now. The government’s decision last fall to permit experimental planting of GE rice has caused a backlash that seems to be spreading. International NGOs, such as Greenpeace, have been advocating caution on this issue in China for years, but the government decision has brought many others into the debate. Furious (and often spurious) arguments and theories rage among China’s “netizens,” online commentators whose anonymity brings with it a license for extreme opinions. The Ministry of Agriculture, feeling somewhat embattled, conducted a long Q&A session on GE crops during the recent meeting of the National People’s Congress—China’s generally-weak-but-occasionally-feisty legislature.

Yokolee Naturally, given all this attention, the issue came up at our conference earlier this week on sustainable agriculture in China. Yokeling Chee, co-director of the Third World Network, summarized TWN’s analysis of the intellectual property issues in the plenary, pointing out the potential for patent claims against China by international biotech firms that have been developing their own GE rice varieties. And there was enough interest in the issue that we organized a lively breakout group as well, with scholars and NGOs looking at the science, economics and politics of GE crops in China and around the world. We also held the Chinese premier of The Future of Food, an award-winning documentary about GE foods, with filmmaker Deborah Garcia answering questions following the show.

Zhou People’s University Professor Zhou Li, who spent a month at IATP as a visiting scholar in 2008, has emerged as one of the more articulate academic critics of GE crops in China. He was interviewed on this issue by China Global Times after the conference. China Global Times is run by People’s Daily, the official organ of the Chinese Communist Party. Might such a prominent airing of critical views portend an official rethink of the controversial decision?

Speaking of controversial, People’s Daily also announced yesterday that the government has drafted a new law against animal cruelty. Chang Jiwen, a scholar at the Law Institute of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, headed up the drafting effort, receiving over 700 comments from the public since the first draft was released last fall. This one seems like even more of a longshot than a ban on GE crops. My sources tell me that the draft is so extreme that it has no chance of passage, and some Chinese animal welfare advocates worry it will actually set back their cause. (Among other things, it outlaws consumption of dog meat, a widespread practice in East and Southeast Asia.)

I have to agree. A better approach would be to start by trying to outlaw some more widely recognized acts of cruelty, while building a case against factory farming of animals on environmental and public health grounds. A recent government report named agriculture as the country’s biggest source of pollution, and animal production is a big part of the problem. Working against the intensification of animal production—for a host of reasons—is emerging as an important component of our China work.

To see some pictures from the workshop, see our Facebook photo album.

Ben Lilliston

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