GMOs Confuse China Consumers, Too

By Lin Tan
DTN China Correspondent

BEIJING (DTN) — Lili Shen stood in a supermarket’s cooking oil aisle, confronted with choices.

The Beijing housewife had to choose between more than just brands, she had to choose between oil made from genetically modified soybean oil (GMO) and non-GMO oil.

She’s heard that GMO soybean oil is risky and non-GMO oil is healthier.

"But, non-GMO soybean oil is much more expensive than GMO soybean oil," Shen said. The non-GMO oil cost $7.33 for a 100 ounce bottle compared to $3.85 for the conventional soybean oil.

Shen picked a bottle of conventional soybean oil, the oil she could afford.

Chinese consumers, much like their American counterparts, face conflicting claims about the healthfulness of food products made from genetically engineered crops. Yet some of the claims in Chinese media venture past health dangers and into the realm of conspiracy theory.

"Though scientists have been promoting the production and usage of GMO crops, public media has brought a lot of discussion on the safety issue of GMO food, and most of the information from it was negative," said Guanghui Xie, a professor at China Agricultural University. "Those discussions have misled the public and consumers, hence causing some concern in the market."

Here’s an example of some of the misleading news stories Chinese consumers hear:

– The reason that bugs can’t damage GMO crops is because the crops are toxic.

– Research shows GMO food causes tumors in small animals.

– U.S. farmers produce GMO food for export, but there’s no GMO food consumed in the U.S.

– U.S. scientists created GMO food to control the world.

– GMO food could be a kind of bio-weapon that the U.S. government could use to conquer the world, especially countries like China.

– Scientists and other GMO supporters in China all have some relation with the U.S. government, or their research is supported by the U.S. government.

The importance of GMO crops to Chinese domestic production of cotton, global trade and food security often gets left behind, Xie said. Chinese consumers don’t fully trust the government authorities’ affirmations of safety and have a hard time finding trustworthy sources to help clarify misperceptions.

Xie also said that sometimes global news publications report on things happening in China, but the state-owned media and government don’t acknowledge them. For instance, in late September, a news wire service reported China stopped the import approval process for a new GMO soybean variety due to poor public acceptance of GMO food.

"There is no official confirmation of this news from the Ministry of Agriculture (MAO) yet," Xie said. "This is one of the problems we have to face in China — news about China coming from outside the country while Chinese government and the local media keep silent on it."

Biotech trait import approvals have become a contentious point in the U.S. and China’s trade relationship ever since China began rejecting cargos of corn that contained the MIR 162 trait, also known as Agrisure Viptera. China hasn’t approved that variety for import shipments yet, but it’s commercially available to U.S. farmers, which makes it difficult to keep out of the grain supply.

Xiaoping Zhang, the director of the U.S. Soybean Export Council (USSEC) office in Beijing, said the soybean variety in question has not been commercialized yet and is not yet in production in the U.S., so the trade impact will be limited.

"However, if the government keeps delaying the approval process, commercialization of new GMO varieties will be impacted, hampering soybean production and trade in main producing countries, including the U.S."

U.S. and Chinese leaders will meet in November to discuss trade issues, and the U.S. agriculture industry is trying to make sure that biotech crop approvals are a part of the discussion.