China rejected 545,000 tons of corn imported from the United States after discovering the corn included a genetically modified variety not approved in China. The variety, MIR 162, is a Bt variety developed by Syngenta for greater insect resistance. MIR 162 received regulatory approval in the United States in 2008, and has since received approval in ten other countries. China is the world’s fifth largest producer of genetically modified crops, with approximately 4 million hectares under GM cultivation (the United States, the world’s largest producer by far, has approximately 70 million hectares under GM cultivation).
But Chinese production of GM crops has largely been confined to cotton. While the government has granted safety certificates for varieties of genetically modified corn and rice, it ordered further testing before it would issue licenses for commercial production.
The Chinese response to food biotechnology reflects an interesting internal dynamic.More than 80 percent of Chinese citizens surveyed expressed opposition to genetically modified food, and the anti-GM lobby has unified Maoists, nationalists, and environmentalists. This unity presents a challenge to the Chinese government. While the Chinese government has been willing to move against environmentalist groups in the past, it has been much more hesitant to disrupt Maoist groups. But those groups have come out strongly against genetically modified products, evoking the specter of the Opium Wars and arguing that GM crops are an American effort to weaken China. According to one film produced by the groups, “America is mobilizing its strategic resources to promote GM food vigorously. This is a means of controlling the world by controlling the world’s food production.”
It’s an interesting problem for the Chinese government, which clearly views genetic modification as a mechanism to expand production on scarce land in the country. The Ministry of Agriculture has commenced an education campaign intended to convince Chinese consumers of the safety and necessity of genetically modified agriculture. But more broadly, China’s rejection of US grain this week might be seen as an effort to reassert the government’s position among Maoist opposition groups—a fascinating example of the local politics of global food.
[This story was originally blogged at Global Food Politics and is reprinted here by permission].