Business / Industries

Concerns rise as GMO debate shifts from field to dinner table

(Agencies) Updated: 2014-10-20 03:03

The Chinese government is trying to convince Zhou Guangxiu that the corn in the congee she wants to feed her son is safe. That may not be easy.

Zhou, the owner of a recycling business in the northeast coastal city of Weihai, said one source of her concern was an anonymous article shared online by her friends that alleges genetically modified crops cause infertility in Asians, part of a United States ploy against China. She fears her 21-year-old son won't have his own family if she feeds him the corn-meal porridge.

"I definitely won't let my son eat it," Zhou said by telephone. "It's not just me. All our friends are worried. All the corn grown now is genetically modified."

China, the world's most-populous country and the biggest consumer of rice, soybeans and wheat, has begun a campaign to push genetically modified organisms as it seeks to expand food supplies. While no domestic grain crops are bioengineered, President Xi Jinping has endorsed the technology used to boost output everywhere from the Americas to Africa. The Ministry of Agriculture said on Sept 28 it would use media, seminars and street advertising to combat the perceived risks.

Meat consumption has surged in China as the economy expanded almost six-fold over the past decade and incomes rose. That led to an increase in livestock herds and demand for feed. The nation is already the biggest soybean buyer and will become the top corn importer by about 2020, the US Department of Agriculture estimates. Most of its overseas supplies are produced from seed genetically engineered to grow with certain traits, like killing pests or tolerating herbicides.

"There has been a lot of opposition against GMO in China not based on science, which, if left unchecked, can weaken government support for the development of biotechnology," Li Qiang, chairman of Shanghai JC Intelligence Co, the country's largest independent agriculture market researcher, said by telephone from Shanghai on Oct 7. "The agriculture ministry probably feels compelled to do some education."

Because the technology is new, "it's reasonable that society should hold controversial views and doubts," Xi told a Party conference on rural works last December, the Beijing Evening News reported on Sept 28. China should ensure biotechnology is safe and should not allow foreign companies to control the market for gene-modified products, he said.

The concern among some Chinese consumers about genetically modified grains dovetails with broader worries about food safety.

The State-led campaign to promote GMOs comes at a time when meat has become a popular choice at meals, requiring more corn, wheat and soybeans to feed livestock. China is the world's largest pork consumer, ranks second in chicken demand, and trails only the US and Brazil in beef, USDA data show.

China's demand for corn and soybeans will continue to rise in line with economic growth, according to the USDA report in April. The economy, which has the world's biggest meat industry, may expand 6.9 percent in 2016, more than twice as fast as the US, according to estimates compiled by Bloomberg.

The country imported 63 million tons of soybeans last year valued at $38 billion, accounting for more than 60 percent of global exports, customs data show. It also shipped in 3.3 million tons of corn, according to the data. Soybean purchases will climb to 96.9 million tons by about 2020, with corn reaching 16 million tons, according to a long-term projection made by the USDA in February.

Most of the soybeans and corn China imports are grown with engineered seeds, including those with built-in resistance to Monsanto Co's Roundup herbicide, Zhang Xiaoping, chief representative of the US Soybean Export Council, said.

China's biggest supplier is the US, where GMO crops account for 93 percent of all corn produced and 94 percent of soybeans, USDA data show.

"China doesn't have a choice when the top suppliers all employ the technology," Zhang said.

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