22 May 2019

Why GM crops are slow to flourish in China

China’s efforts to raise genetically modified (GM) crops are stuck in a bureaucratic logjam and advocates are looking to President Xi Jinping to break it.

Xi backed the program in a speech last year but warned scientists to be “bold in research, careful in promotion”.

With state funding, researchers have developed a number of crops and are now just waiting for the green light to commercialize them, the Financial Times reported Tuesday.

However, approval has been slow amid negative public opinion and opposition from officials.

“After that speech, open opposition to GM has quietened down,” says botanist Xu Zhihong, the retired president of Peking University.

“There’s still some but you find fewer online rants.”

Zhu Zhen, a scientist in the Institute of Genetics and Developmental Biology under the Chinese Academy of Sciences, said he was surprised by the opposition when he developed a strain of GM rice.

More than 10 years later, it is still awaiting approval.

“Strong social resistance means GM can’t be rolled out quickly,” Zhu said.

Official opposition comes from agriculture industry groups, especially northeastern soy growers and seed marketers who fear increased competition, nationalists who are worried about the influence of western agri-tech giants, and environmental groups including Greenpeace.

Agriculture minister Han Changbin tried to ease concerns when he told a journalist in March that he eats GM food.

Food safety is an emotional topic in China.

Distrust of Chinese-produced products runs high in the urban middle class after a series of scandals, the most serious of which was the 2008 contamination of baby milk with melamine.

At least six babies died from the contaminated formula and tens of thousands were hospitalised.

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