By Krista Mahr
February 18, 2008
In the wake of poisonings in Japan linked to Chinese-made dumplings, last week brought a fresh wave of scrutiny to China’s control over its food industry. In 2006 and 2007, European officials discovered an unauthorized variety of genetically modified (GM) rice made in China — illegal in both Europe and China — in processed food exported to European Union nations. Last Tuesday, the European Commission enacted an emergency regulation on Chinese food imports: Starting April 15, food products containing Chinese rice will require mandatory certification that they’ve been tested for the experimental GM variety called Bt63.
The measure underscores a discomfort in the West with China’s growing dominance in the business of inventing and selling genetically modified seed. Faced with feeding every fifth person on the planet with less than one-tenth of the world’s farmland, Beijing has been pumping hundreds of millions of dollars into transgenic crop research and development, hoping the plants, whose DNA is combined with genetic material that programs them with traits like pest and weed resistance, will help farmers yield more food and commodities at a lower cost — especially as farmland is being lost to development and drought. Most of China’s cotton is already transgenic, and rice, wheat, maize, soybeans and livestock are in the pipeline. “China decided that conventional technology would not allow it to feed its people,” says Clive James, chairman and founder of the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA). In the 12 years since GM crops have been commercially grown, James says most planting has been in the Americas. “I believe that the second decade will be the decade of Asia,” he says.