More balanced GM debate needed to bridge info gap

Updated: 2011-12-01 20:46


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BEIJING- Although genetically modified foods have been grown and sold in China for some time, the term still makes the public jittery.

Debates on genetic modification range from safety concerns, environmental impact, food security, ethics to politics. When all these issues come into play, discussions on GM become complicated.


When Chinese consumers surf the Internet for information on oil made from imported GM soybeans -- the most common GM product on the Chinese market -- it's likely they will become confused.

Most of the blogs are not that balanced. They contain either vehement attacks or lavish support, and scientists say that such polarizing arguments are misleading the public.

"Americans never eat GM crops because of health issues, why should we Chinese fall into the trap?" one post reads.

Another report yanked together two pieces of unrelated news: "Guangxi grows GM corns" and "seminal abnormality were found among college students in Guangxi," implying the former led to the latter.

Though scientists offer another view, their voices are drowned out by GM critics.

"A lot of online information regarding GM crops in China is sensational and misleading, which causes panic as the public knows little about the technology. We need to deliver information in a more scientific and responsible manner," said Luo Yunbo, a professor with China Agricultural University on food science.

Luo acknowledged Chinese scientists have failed to accurately inform the public and needed to debate the issues using simple language.

He also urged that the government take more steps to facilitate spread of scientific information, though its credibility has been put into question after repeated food scandals.

Luo's view was shared by Lin Min, director of the Biotechnology Research Institute of the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences (CAAS), who believed more rational voices from reliable sources will create a better and more constructive environment for dialogues on the issue in China.


Whether GM food carries potential risks to health in the long term is the biggest concern for the public.

Luo, as a supporter of GM foods, said current scientific research suggests that once GM food passes the safety test and is granted certificates, it is as safe as non-modified foods, adding no adverse health effects caused by products approved for sale have come to light.

The way to assess GM food safety is to see whether it is "substantially equivalent" to conventional food, according to Luo. The Food and Agriculture Organization and World Health Organization endorsed the principle in 1996.

Luo also acknowledged that all scientific conclusions are drawn from existing research, leaving future possibilities open, which is the main argument GM critics use. Luo said put in this context, "non-modified foods are just as risky as we cannot predict what will happen in the future either."

But such arguments do not nullify the fears. GM skeptics said scientists should not rush to offer genetically modified food to the public until they can guarantee the foods are completely safe.

"More research and tests are needed," said Jiang Gaoming, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Sciences' Institute of Botany who has long opposed GM foods.


The government has taken an open mind on the issue. China has allowed several GM crops to be grown, including cotton, peppers, tomatoes and papayas, and has authorized imports of GM soybeans and corn.

In 2008, the government injected 24 billion yuan ($3.7 billion) into researching and developing GM crops while government officials have voiced support for the technology.

Debate heated up when China granted two strains of pest-resistant GM rice safety certificates in 2009, which cleared a major hurdle for further plans of commercialization.

The tinkering with the staple immediately prompted a backlash from GM opponents, saying it was too hasty to put an "immature" technology into commercial use.

More than 100 scholars and notable figures last year delivered a letter to the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress, demanding the revocation of all safety certificates for modified corn and rice.

Luo said the opposition has slowed down the commercialization of GM rice.

Lin Yongjun, professor of Huazhong Agricultural University and also a member on Zhang Qifa's research team, which leads the development of the certified GM rice, said the plantation of GM crops can help cut pesticide use, which in turn lowers production costs and increase yields.

Jiang Gaoming disputed Lin's view with his experiments on organic farming in Shandong province. According to him, yields could also improve by adopting current traditional growing methods.


Like it or not, the genie is out of the bottle.

Though GM rice has not been approved for commercial sale yet, it has been found on the shelves in many supermarkets in Hubei, Hunan and Jiangxi provinces, prompting concerns over weak market regulations.

Luo admitted that loopholes existed in China's supervision over the market, but he denied safety risks as China is much stricter with GM crops than many other countries.

"Though some profit-driven businesses have stolen the seeds and sold them on the market, that does not mean any health risks because the seeds have passed safety tests," he said.

Another voice of concern by most opponents is the potential ecological consequences of transgenes escaping from GM crops to unmodified crops through cross-pollination.

Li Maoteng, professor of the department of life science and technology from Huangzhong University of Science and technology, said the possible effects would require years of field trials.

While Lin Yongjun said that like any other agricultural activities, GM crops will have some impact on environment. His team is working on how to control the risks to make the crops more eco-friendly.

"The key is management. We will launch pilot projects before we decide to spread the practices," he said.

Since there is no way to resolve the controversies over GM crops in any quick or definitive way, Lin said he supported clear labeling of GM crops to respect the consumers' rights so they can make their own choices.