Asia Holds the Key to the Future of GM Food

Posted January 2, 2004

Categories: Articles, Asia, Food

The transatlantic brawl between the United States and Europe over genetically modified (GM) food is attracting much of the media’s interest. Billions of dollars in sales, the genetic fate of food crops, and the future safety of human beings hinge on this debate between skeptical Europeans and American technophiles. But it is in Asia that the new techno-food will live or die.

Asia is home to the world’s largest consumer base and the greatest number of farmers. If Asians accept US claims about GM food – that it is safe to eat, safe to grow, and the only way to feed growing populations – these new varieties of rice, soybeans, and corn will rule the world. If Asian countries follow the cautious lead of the Europeans, however, by labeling GM products and establishing a system that can trace health problems back to their source, biotechnology will occupy a more modest niche on the farm and marketplace.

Put another way, if the GM struggle were an election, with the United States and the European Union the two frontrunners, then Asia would be one huge swing state. And so far, the undecideds rule.

Take China. It is the only country in Asia growing a significant amount of GMOs – more than half of its cotton crop. Chinese biotech research programs employ 20,000 people in 200 labs. China claims to have developed the world’s first genetically modified wheat in 1990, is now running 10 GM rice field trials, and has become the world’s largest importer of GM soybeans.

Yet the Chinese government has, until now, avoided planting GM food crops for public consumption. China also joined the Like-Minded Group, a coalition of 100 developing countries favoring strict regulation of GMOs. But quietly, China is trying to corner the Asian market on GM research and development and even overtake the US sector. As Wang Feng, a biotech expert at the Fujian Academy of Agricultural Science, told China Daily, “If we do not boldly push ahead with our GM technologies, we will never have our own Monsanto or Syngenta [biotech firms].”

Not all Chinese agree with the government’s policy. Shanghai resident Zhu Yanling launched the country’s first consumer lawsuit (against Nestle for a symbolic US$1.64 in damages) because she consumed a Nesquik instant chocolate drink that she believes contained unlabelled GM ingredients; GM skeptics demand appropriate labeling to alert consumers to possible risks. According to a recent poll by Zhongshan University, nearly nine out of ten citizens of the southern city of Guangzhou want GM ingredients labeled – roughly the same number shows up in polls in Europe and the US. In what may be the first of many state-level challenges, Heilongjang province in the northeast, China’s leader in soybean production, has banned the import of GM soybeans.

India and Indonesia have also been cheerleaders for GM research, hopeful that the new crops can feed burgeoning populations and produce pest-free crops. But when both countries began easing into the technology by planting GM cotton, they discovered mixed results: crop failures in some Indian districts, lower yields, and more pesticide use than conventional varieties in parts of Indonesia. Still, the two countries are continuing research: Indonesia plans a “bioisland” on Rempang Island near Singapore, while India pours money into bio-fortified foods, such as vitamin A-enriched rice, peanuts, and mustard.

Japan is in a similarly ambivalent position. The world’s largest importer of food, Japan is a huge potential market for GM products. The government is cautiously researching GM applications, such as super carbon dioxide-absorbent trees to combat global warming.

But Japanese people, reeling from a series of food scares including beef-mislabeling, mad cow disease, and contamination of GM corn feed in the human food chain, are highly cautious. Japanese consumer groups take credit for persuading their government to stop GM rice trials and – after a March 2004 meeting between US officials and representatives of 414 Japanese consumer and environmental groups opposed to biotech foods – for Monsanto’s recent decision not to release GM wheat on the global market.

Japan has a labeling law, but it is somewhat looser than the European standard. While a product in Europe must be labeled if more than .9 percent of its ingredients are from GM sources, Japan has set the bar at 5 percent. Thailand also has chosen the 5 percent threshold. South Korea’s threshold is 3 percent, and the government further requires all advertisements for food products to indicate GM presence. Neither India nor Pakistan has adopted labeling laws.

The issue, of course, runs a lot deeper than labels for consumers. As Anuradha Mittal, executive director of the US-based Oakland Institute, points out, the US and Europe look at the GM issue differently from the developing world. “The talk in the United States and Europe is about consumers,” she points out. “The issue in Asia is livelihood, the farmers, and the takeover of the food system.” And it is America, Mittal points out, that is transforming food production around the world through a mixture of carrots and sticks.

In terms of carrots for Asia, the US is providing research grants, such as a five-year agreement with India that has a strong biotech component. In 2002, the United States provided US$15 million for a GM research center in the Philippines. The US hopes that the research grants will serve as a hook, and that the recipients will be seduced by the new technology.

If the carrots fail, however, there is always the stick. As a warning to all GM-ambivalent nations, the US has challenged the EU in the World Trade Organization (WTO), under the presumption that a cautious stance toward the new technology is a trade barrier. When India rejected imports of a GM corn-soya blend in 2002, Washington enlisted CARE-India and Catholic Relief Services to lobby on its behalf. And Thailand must back GM foods before the United States will approve a free-trade agreement.

To counter US pressure, anti-GM activists are pushing their governments to assume the European stance. They’ve also been active at the international level, lobbying for the passage and ratification of the Cartagena Biosafety Protocol, under which any country can justify their refusal of imports on the grounds of health and safety. Top GM-growing countries have not ratified the agreement, however.

Activists have also been working with farmers on the ground. In South Korea, for instance, organic farming nearly doubled in acreage from 2001 to 2002. In Japan, the Soy Trust movement has been contracting farmers to increase production of domestic soybeans to substitute for GM imports. In place of the modified “golden rice” that biotech enthusiasts are promoting, advocates of System of Rice Intensification (SRI) promise higher yields with less irrigation and fewer chemical inputs.

The stakes in Asia’s decision on GM food are enormous: a huge market in seeds and crops, a total restructuring of farming practice, and a test of civil society’s strength in countries where governments routinely dictate agricultural policy. The backlash against new technologies can be either a temporary speed bump or a significant obstacle. In the end, Asians will determine whether the new techno-foods remake the global diet or join radioactive fertilizer and cold fusion in the junk bin of science.

Yale Global Online, December 2, 2004

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