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)(http://tiny.cc/…)
"Can the Chinese Government Get Its People to Like G.M.O.s?" (The New Yorker) (http://tiny.cc/…)
"China Hates GMOs. Problem Is, China Really Needs GMOs" (Wired)(http://tiny.cc/…)
"In Push for G.M.O.s, China Battles Fears of 8-Legged Chickens" (The New York Times)(http://tiny.cc/…)
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 http://tiny.cc/…
Urban Lehner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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