It’s China vs. China in GMO Food Fight

September 3, 2013, 7:30 AM

It’s China vs. China in GMO Food Fight

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China’s fierce public debate on genetically modified food, long a political hot potato in a country obsessed with how to feed its 1.3 billion citizens, has become the subject of a spat between big guns from two of its most powerful governing institutions. Two weeks ago, a major-general in the People’s Liberation Army took to a popular newspaper to publish (in Chinese) a series of pointed rhetorical questions about Beijing’s policy allowing more trade in genetically modified grains, suggesting that genetically modified organisms, or GMO, are a strategy by which a Western conspiracy to supplant China’s food security is taking shape. GMOs are organisms that have had their genetic blueprint artificially re-engineered; for example, crops altered to become bug-resistant.“If things change and the West cuts off our grain supply, are 1.3 billion people going to drink the northwestern wind?” Peng Guangqian, who is also deputy secretary-general of China’s National Security Policy Committee, wrote in a column for the nationalist daily Global Times.

On Sunday, the Ministry of Agriculture – which has authority over GMO policy – fired back, posting a question-and-answer transcript (in Chinese) featuring an official from its GMO Security Committee rebutting Mr. Peng point by point. Lin Min, who is also director of the Biotechnology Research Institute of the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences, flatly rejected Mr. Peng’s claim that “many scientists through experiments have proven GMO food is highly linked to cancer and infertility.”

Mr. Lin also pointed out that the U.S. is the world’s largest consumer of GMO crops and said that as China faces rising strains on its arable land, its use of “foreign resources and market coordination are inevitable.”

“This conspiracy theory is a product of Cold War thinking,” Mr. Lin said, dismissing Mr. Peng’s concerns. “Government-approved GMO food and non-GMO food are equally safe…If GMO research has any benefit, it is first and foremost in the national interest.”

Ministry officials and scholars have raised points similar to Mr. Lin’s in the course of nearly two decades of debate over the advent of GMO food in China. But Mr. Lin’s riposte to Mr. Peng was remarkable for its emphatic tone and invocation of stock phrases – “national interest,” “Cold War thinking” – more often reserved for discussions of defense policy.

The ministry has a sizable stake in the debate. As China’s food demand rises with its affluence, the ministry has increasingly turned to GMO imports to buffer domestic supplies. In June, Beijing added import permits for three kinds of GMO soybeans produced by U.S. giant MonsantoMON +0.66% and German chemical producer BASF. Last month, the government approved the first large-scale shipment of GMO corn from Argentina. The ministry has issued permits for every stage of domestic GMO development of China’s major crops except for the final hurdle: commercial production.

Mr. Peng’s essay for the Global Times gives a clue to the ministry’s hesitation. There is a large and rising reservoir of public resistance toward GMO food. China has for more than a decade allowed the use of GMO soybeans, but its move in June to add the three herbicide- and insect-resistant strains from Monsanto and BASF triggered a public firestorm. In July, an official from the soybean association of Heilongjiang, a major agricultural province, made headlines when he told local media that people who consume GMO soy oil were more vulnerable to cancer. There is no scientific consensus on these claims, and Mr. Lin pointed to Western studies that appear to debunk them.

Internet discussion boards, including China’s Twitter-like microblogging service Sina Weibo, have long nurtured a hotbed of opposition to GMO’s policy advances. Despite the ministry’s latest riposte to Mr. Peng, the commentary suggests the agriculture ministry has a long way to go in convincing the public on the safety of GMO food – and not least from the top brass in its own military.

“Lin Min supporting Monsanto, that’s nothing new,” wrote a blogger called Lu Yongyan, who appeared based on his Weibo account to also be a PLA general. “If GMO is that good, you should enjoy it together with the Americans, [but] don’t deceive the Chinese people.”

“Those who are advocating for giving the green light to GMO food are all modern traitors and lackeys!” another blogger called Lit Night said.

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (, the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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