China's stance on biotech complicated

Feb 14, 2014
by DTN

China’s decision to hold up imports of certain U.S. corn shipments is a result of the country’s divisions in developing a modern agricultural and food policy, a key U.S. government official said here this week.

China’s government has officially decided “to use new technology and look to global markets” but “there is still an intense and increasingly public debate in China when genetic modification and trade intersect,” said Scott Sindelar, the Minister Counselor for Agricultural Affairs at the U.S. embassy in Beijing.

He was speaking Monday at the annual meeting here of the U.S. Grains Council, a group that promotes U.S. feed grains exports.

China has rejected some 600,000 metric tons of corn since November after a shipment tested positive for a genetically engineered strain of corn that China has not approved. China has also rejected about 2,000 tons of U.S. dried distillers grains, a feed that is a byproduct of ethanol production.

China has allowed other shipments into the country. Faced with limited arable land for a country of 1.3 billion people and increasing demand for food as the population grows rich, but still worried about dependency on foreign sources of food, China is “at a crossroads” and thus develops some “contradictory” policies, Sindelar said.

China has officially altered its long-term goal of “food self-sufficiency” to “grain self-sufficiency,” which means rice and wheat, he said. Corn is left off that list because it is a feed grain rather than a food product. This “change from previous policy” should be good for U.S. imports, he explained, but U.S. corn also gets caught up in the debate over how to handle biotechnology.

The Chinese government has made the development of a domestic biotech industry a priority, Sindelar said, but the Chinese Communist Party still favors selfsufficiency in food or at least “freedom from foreign domination” in grains.

Meanwhile, China’s efforts to create its own biotech seeds have focused on basic research and “yielded very little in commercial outcomes,” while opposition to the importation of foreign biotechnology remains strong, Sindelar added.

“The rhetoric is not matched by the action on the ground,” he said, referring to the government’s changes in policy, “and the bureaucracy is cumbersome.”

China has said the lack of consumer protection and lack of consensus on the science behind genetic engineering has slowed down the process of approving new GE varieties, but “internally there is a political struggle underway at the same time,” he said.

For Chinese officials, he said, “taking no action is easier and less risky than taking action.”

Chinese leaders who are strongly nationalistic and consider importing corn to be a violation of the country’s food self-sufficiency goals are also against genetic engineering, Bryan Lohmar, the U.S Grains Council Director in China said in a separate session.

Industrial crops such as hides, skins and cotton are “fairly liberalized,” Lohmar said, because they are used in production for exports. The Chinese also import a lot of oilseeds due to their World Trade Organization accession agreement.

Resolving the short-term problems of rejected shipments and the slowness in approving GE varieties “defies an easy solution,” Sindelar said, because for Chinese officials “the internal pressures are greater than the exterior.”

But he added that he expects the Chinese to make some decisions on biotech approvals during the coming months, and noted that China’s hosting of the Asia- Pacific Economic Cooperation summit this year will also put pressure on the government to make decisions.

Long-term, Sindelar said, he sees a better “road map” for U.S. exports. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack’s project to help the Chinese with their biotech approval process is likely to prove beneficial, he said.

Sindelar also praised U.S. efforts to work with Brazil and other countries that produce genetically-engineered products to develop joint positions on these issues.

“The current concerns are global in nature,” Sindelar concluded. “We need to be working with other major producing countries to avoid situations that threaten these technologies.” — Jerry Hagstrom, DTN