An Urban's Rural View

The Chinese Really Hate GMOs -- Or Do They?

Urban C Lehner
By  Urban C Lehner , Editor Emeritus
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The United States and China have a couple things in common when it comes to genetically engineered crops. In both countries the government embraces them; in both, the people distrust them.

Keep those similarities in mind as you peruse the following headlines:

"China Wants GMOs. The Chinese People Don't." (Bloomberg)(…)

"Can the Chinese Government Get Its People to Like G.M.O.s?" (The New Yorker) (…)

"China Hates GMOs. Problem Is, China Really Needs GMOs" (Wired)(…)

"In Push for G.M.O.s, China Battles Fears of 8-Legged Chickens" (The New York Times)(…)

Notice that the United States goes unmentioned in these headlines. The story line that pops up again and again from Googling "China" and "GMO" is that China's citizens loathe genetic engineering with a unique passion. Yet much of the evidence cited for this proposition has remarkable American parallels. Are the Chinese really so violently and uniquely anti-GMO?

For biotech agriculture, China is the future -- the make-or-break country. China grows only 3 million acres now, mostly cotton. But the government has made developing a biotech-ag industry a top priority. Whether it will succeed depends on whether it can overcome the purportedly ferocious resistance of the Chinese people.

And, to be sure, the articles I just cited are studded with vituperative quotes from anti-biotech Chinese. In one, a GMO advocate is vilified as a "traitor." In another, ChemChina's acquisition of Syngenta is called "suicidal." An army general says GMOs are a foreign conspiracy -- "biological weapons" aimed at destroying the Chinese people's health.

Yet if you follow these issues in the U.S., you know the Chinese have no monopoly on hyperbolic verbal abuse of biotechnology. "GMO foods are killing us," cries a headline on an American website. "Monsanto is poisoning you," an American demonstrator's sign declares. Internet conspiracy theorists even blamed Chipotle's food-safety problems last year on "bioterrorism attacks" by the biotech industry.

In both China and the U.S., then, some chunk of the population seems to really despise genetic engineering. Could the chunk be bigger in China than the U.S.? Possibly. In a Chinese poll 84% considered GMOs unsafe, while only 57% responded that way in an American poll. Neither poll, however, was entirely convincing.

Going by the old maxim to watch what people do rather than what they say, please note that in both countries people eat GMO food. There's no sign of big consumer boycotts in either. There's reason to suspect that in both countries most people know little about GMOs.

Perhaps, then, Chinese fears of GMOs aren't so deeply rooted that an authoritarian government determined to create an ag-biotechnology industry couldn't allay them.

What is different in China is the public's distrust of the safety of food generally. The 2008 contaminated-milk crisis is just one of many food scandals still fresh in people's minds. These memories incline them to believe wild charges, like the rumor last year that KFC was serving genetically modified chickens with six wings and eight legs.

Make no mistake, it won't be easy for China's government to change the public's mind. But the task isn't hopeless. Because the government sees GMOs playing a crucial role in the country's food security, because developing an ag-biotech industry ranks high on its industrial-policy wish list, it's certain to give it a try.

If it succeeds, China could end up five or ten years from now growing more of its own GMO soybeans and importing fewer from the U.S. and Brazil. Alternatively, the country's demand for animal feed could continue to increase, requiring both imports and domestic production.

Or, fear of eight-legged genetically engineered chickens could make success impossible. That's what the predominant story line suggests will happen. You have to wonder, though, about the evidence supporting that line.


Curious about where China's demand for imported food and agricultural products is going? At the DTN/The Progressive Farmer Ag Summit in Chicago this December 5-7, Informa Economics CEO Tom Scott will give a sneak peak into the company's research on export prospects to China and other large commodity markets.

This year marks the tenth anniversary of the Ag Summit. The editors have put together a strong lineup of presentations and breakout sessions. And with several hundred leading producers expected to join us (last year, total attendance topped 700), there will be plenty of networking opportunities, as well.

To get more information and register, check out…

Urban Lehner can be reached at



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11/8/2016 | 9:11 AM CST
An old DA here used to tell the wash tub story when he had a weak case. Take a wash tub , add dirt , and stir. Muddy the water. So goes GMO's. There are no yield genes. There are no drought genes. Yields are better if you control weeds and insects. By any means. Genetic yield increases come from selection and traditional genetic science. Inserting multiple traits into high yielding varieties over time extends patents, and enforces the control of the supply chain.. Lawyers and contracts are the real drivers of global seed companies. The highest yielding corn variety on our farm by far is only available with traits. But at one time 90% of the cars were black. You could not assume customers only wanted black cars. As Alfred Sloan proved. And then comes Wally Tyner of Purdue. With a story that GMO's will reduce greenhouse gases. But only because the best genetics now are legally tied to triats that are very profitable Harry Stine may be Alfred Sloan of plant genetics.
11/7/2016 | 5:42 PM CST
One thing you're missing.....we are a somewhat captive market. In my area non GMO varieties are older hybrids that won't yield with newer ones. The latest genetics are only offered GMO. So is the yield advantage biotech or genetics.
Urban Lehner
11/3/2016 | 6:59 PM CDT
Thanks for the interesting comment. I have no reason to doubt the Times article but I wonder if it's the whole story. My operating assumption is that if farmers can't pencil GMO seeds, they won't buy them. I also assume that whether those seeds pencil depends partly on yield but also partly on other variables in the equation--expenditures on chemicals, ability to no-till, that sort of thing. A lot of farmers buy them now, which (to me) suggests one of two things: Either the seeds make economic sense for a fairly substantial chunk of farmers, or those farmers are bad at math. I'd love to hear more from you and from others on this.
11/2/2016 | 8:20 AM CDT
If you like fried chicken legs eight legged chickens are a great idea!!! But the NY Times story this weekend was the heart of the matter. Strange that stories on yield advantage have not surfaced in the ag. media. In fact I was in the room with DTN this summer when a land grant agronomist presented the same conclusions as the NY Times. The issue of food safety seems to really be behind us. But the question of value and at what price has only begun. Maybe each grower puts a different value on the management time GMO's save. Which is reasonable. But is adopting GMO's at any price reasonable?? If you think the anti- GMO crowd is crazy, try being a farmer telling his neighbors there is a price too high