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Use facts to win debate on GM food

By Xiao Xin | China Daily | Updated: 2014-10-23 07:57

There is no sign of the debate on whether China should legalize planting of genetically modified (GM) crops, such as rice and wheat, ending anytime soon. Pro-GM and anti-GM activists both have refused to back off, leading to the two camps bickering with each other on various traditional and social media platforms.

Debates are welcome, for they help clarify facts. But it seems both camps have failed to participate in the debate in a proper manner because they often resort to sensational wordings and present misleading facts to try to influence public opinion.

The latest high-profile pro-GM campaign was a seminar in Wuhan, Hubei province, where 19 scientists from China and abroad discussed the development of GM foods in China. Xu Zhihong, coordinator of the seminar and an academic at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, accused anti-GM activists of being "irrational" saying their arguments are "not based on scientific assessment." Xu, former president of the influential Peking University, said the debate on safety of GM foods and related issues has prevented the public from benefiting from GM technology.

While leveling such charges, Xu used few scientific data to prove his point. Instead, he simply repeated some statements that are often cited by pro-GM activists, such as "GM crops have increased food safety and reduced the impact of agriculture on the environment".

In earlier discussions, pro-GM activists have alleged that the debate had "blocked China's technological advancement". Some have even labeled anti-GM activists, many of whom are not professional scientists, as "unknowledgeable laymen", hinting that they are not even entitled to participate in such discussions.

Such arguments smack of profession-based prejudice owing to lack of data and facts and will only backfire on the pro-GM camp and leave the public less convinced about the professed safety and other benefits of GM foods.

Some anti-GM activists have committed similar mistakes in trying to explain to the public why they oppose the technology or mass planting of GM crops. For example, some have simply accused pro-GM activists of being agents of malicious GM seed companies in Western countries that intend to thwart China's future grain security. Some of them have even called GM crop supporters hanjian, or traitors, who trade national interests for personal gains.

It is hard for rational people to buy such sensational claims. So in the fitness of things, both sides should use rationality and facts to sell their opinions to the public.

GM crops and food are new to many, including some scientists not familiar with the specific field of genetic engineering. As a result, there have been many academic discussions and opinions on the safety of the new strains, their ability to increase yields and their impact on the environment.

Contrary to the expectations of industrial optimists when GM technology was first applied to crops, both cash crops and food crops, recent years have seen an increasing number of academic discussions highlighting the safety risks of GM crops and the uncertainties in increasing yields. Some scientists have warned against the potential dangers of GM crops on people's health, citing published (and peer reviewed) academic papers based on experiments. But in most of the cases, such experiments have been challenged by other scientists, leaving the public confused.

Researchers engaged in meta-analysis of the economic benefits of GM crops, however, have found that genetic engineering technology may not necessarily lead to increased yields - and the increase in yield depends highly on the maturity of a country's farming system and infrastructure. Even a US Department of Agriculture report, which was published in February and listed many benefits of GM crops and food, admitted: "Over the first 15 years of commercial use, genetically engineered seeds have not been shown to increase yield potentials of the varieties. In fact, the yields of herbicide-tolerant or insect-resistant seeds may be occasionally lower than the yields of conventional varieties".

Those who tout GM foods to the Chinese people, however, have often failed to tell them the other side of the story.

The onus to use more solid scientific research results is now on those opposed to GM crops if they want their views to be accepted by the public.

The author is a senior writer with China Daily.


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