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Why are Chinese worried about American corn?

By Adam Minter
Bloomberg News

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Who’s afraid of a little genetically engineered American corn?

Chinese quarantine officers apparently. They’ve recently blocked at least six batches (more than 180,000 tons) of American corn from entering China, citing the presence of a genetically modified strain of the grain that the Chinese government hasn’t (yet) approved for import. The impact has been notable: U.S. corn futures have fallen, in part out of fear of further Chinese enforcement action.

So far there’s been little coverage of the blocked shipments in the Chinese news media. (The general-interest news junkie with a penchant for corn news is a rare breed, no pun intended.) Yet interest in whether genetically modified organisms (GMO) should be a part of the food supply has long generated passionate public debate in China, often exceeding the arguments that have taken place in the U.S. and — unusually — setting powerful Chinese government officials and entities against each other. So, for example, the Ministry of Agriculture is a GMO proponent, while quarantine officials, at least this fall, are opponents.

There is a serious divergence between the politics and the reality on the matter.

Despite the occasional official anti-GMO rhetoric, in actuality China imports large volumes of genetically modified soybeans, much from the U.S. (where most of the soybeans are genetically modified) — and has been doing so for years. Meanwhile, China has developed and commercialized domestic varieties of genetically modified tomatoes, papayas and sweet peppers (as well as cotton and petunias).

In the case of food, China requires labeling of GMOs, though the labels have their limits, such as at restaurants. As a result, many Chinese consumers underestimate the volume of GMOs in their food, and thus, the debate often lags behind actual situation in China’s kitchens and pantries.

There remains substantial skepticism of GMOs both in China’s state-owned media, and among bloggers and microbloggers. Much of this suspicion isn’t merely grounded in fear of technology, but rather a reasonable fear that China’s pathetically inadequate food-safety system will fail to protect from rogue GMOs.


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