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Checkbiotech: Asia holds the key to the future of GM food
Posted by: DR. RAUPP (IP Logged)
Date: December 05, 2004 11:29AM ;

Wary Asian consumers may decide how much genetically modified food will
reach the world's dinner tables, December 2004 by John Feffer.

The transatlantic brawl between the United States and Europe over
genetically modified (GM) food is attracting much of the media's interest.
Billions of dollars in sales, the genetic fate of food crops, and the future
safety of human beings hinge on this debate between skeptical Europeans and
American technophiles. But it is in Asia that the new techno-food will live
or die.

Asia is home to the world's largest consumer base and the greatest number of
farmers. If Asians accept US claims about GM food ? that it is safe to eat,
safe to grow, and the only way to feed growing populations ? these new
varieties of rice, soybeans, and corn will rule the world. If Asian
countries follow the cautious lead of the Europeans, however, by labeling GM
products and establishing a system that can trace health problems back to
their source, biotechnology will occupy a more modest niche on the farm and

Put another way, if the GM struggle were an election, with the United States
and the European Union the two frontrunners, then Asia would be one huge
swing state. And so far, the undecideds rule.

Take China. It is the only country in Asia growing a significant amount of
GMOs ? more than half of its cotton crop. Chinese biotech research programs
employ 20,000 people in 200 labs. China claims to have developed the world's
first genetically modified wheat in 1990, is now running 10 GM rice field
trials, and has become the world's largest importer of GM soybeans.

Yet the Chinese government has, until now, avoided planting GM food crops
for public consumption. China also joined the Like-Minded Group, a coalition
of 100 developing countries favoring strict regulation of GMOs. But quietly,
China is trying to corner the Asian market on GM research and development
and even overtake the US sector. As Wang Feng, a biotech expert at the
Fujian Academy of Agricultural Science, told China Daily, "If we do not
boldly push ahead with our GM technologies, we will never have our own
Monsanto or Syngenta [biotech firms]."

Not all Chinese agree with the government's policy. Shanghai resident Zhu
Yanling launched the country's first consumer lawsuit (against Nestle for a
symbolic US$1.64 in damages) because she consumed a Nesquik instant
chocolate drink that she believes contained unlabelled GM ingredients; GM
skeptics demand appropriate labeling to alert consumers to possible risks.
According to a recent poll by Zhongshan University, nearly nine out of ten
citizens of the southern city of Guangzhou want GM ingredients labeled ?
roughly the same number shows up in polls in Europe and the US. In what may
be the first of many state-level challenges, Heilongjang province in the
northeast, China's leader in soybean production, has banned the import of GM

India and Indonesia have also been cheerleaders for GM research, hopeful
that the new crops can feed burgeoning populations and produce pest-free
crops. But when both countries began easing into the technology by planting
GM cotton, they discovered mixed results: crop failures in some Indian
districts, lower yields, and more pesticide use than conventional varieties
in parts of Indonesia. Still, the two countries are continuing research:
Indonesia plans a "bioisland" on Rempang Island near Singapore, while India
pours money into bio-fortified foods, such as vitamin A-enriched rice,
peanuts, and mustard.

Japan is in a similarly ambivalent position. The world's largest importer of
food, Japan is a huge potential market for GM products. The government is
cautiously researching GM applications, such as super carbon
dioxide-absorbent trees to combat global warming.

But Japanese people, reeling from a series of food scares including
beef-mislabeling, mad cow disease, and contamination of GM corn feed in the
human food chain, are highly cautious. Japanese consumer groups take credit
for persuading their government to stop GM rice trials and ? after a March
2004 meeting between US officials and representatives of 414 Japanese
consumer and environmental groups opposed to biotech foods ? for Monsanto's
recent decision not to release GM wheat on the global market.

Japan has a labeling law, but it is somewhat looser than the European
standard. While a product in Europe must be labeled if more than .9 percent
of its ingredients are from GM sources, Japan has set the bar at 5 percent.
Thailand also has chosen the 5 percent threshold. South Korea's threshold is
3 percent, and the government further requires all advertisements for food
products to indicate GM presence. Neither India nor Pakistan has adopted
labeling laws.

The issue, of course, runs a lot deeper than labels for consumers. As
Anuradha Mittal, executive director of the US-based Oakland Institute,
points out, the US and Europe look at the GM issue differently from the
developing world. "The talk in the United States and Europe is about
consumers," she points out. "The issue in Asia is livelihood, the farmers,
and the takeover of the food system." And it is America, Mittal points out,
that is transforming food production around the world through a mixture of
carrots and sticks.

In terms of carrots for Asia, the US is providing research grants, such as a
five-year agreement with India that has a strong biotech component. In 2002,
the United States provided US$15 million for a GM research center in the
Philippines. The US hopes that the research grants will serve as a hook, and
that the recipients will be seduced by the new technology.

If the carrots fail, however, there is always the stick. As a warning to all
GM-ambivalent nations, the US has challenged the EU in the World Trade
Organization (WTO), under the presumption that a cautious stance toward the
new technology is a trade barrier. When India rejected imports of a GM
corn-soya blend in 2002, Washington enlisted CARE-India and Catholic Relief
Services to lobby on its behalf. And Thailand must back GM foods before the
United States will approve a free-trade agreement.

To counter US pressure, anti-GM activists are pushing their governments to
assume the European stance. They've also been active at the international
level, lobbying for the passage and ratification of the Cartagena Biosafety
Protocol, under which any country can justify their refusal of imports on
the grounds of health and safety. Top GM-growing countries have not ratified
the agreement, however.

Activists have also been working with farmers on the ground. In South Korea,
for instance, organic farming nearly doubled in acreage from 2001 to 2002.
In Japan, the Soy Trust movement has been contracting farmers to increase
production of domestic soybeans to substitute for GM imports. In place of
the modified "golden rice" that biotech enthusiasts are promoting, advocates
of System of Rice Intensification (SRI) promise higher yields with less
irrigation and fewer chemical inputs.

The stakes in Asia's decision on GM food are enormous: a huge market in
seeds and crops, a total restructuring of farming practice, and a test of
civil society's strength in countries where governments routinely dictate
agricultural policy. The backlash against new technologies can be either a
temporary speed bump or a significant obstacle. In the end, Asians will
determine whether the new techno-foods remake the global diet or join
radioactive fertilizer and cold fusion in the junk bin of science.

John Feffer,, currently a Pantech Fellow in Korean
Studies at Stanford University, is writing a book on the global politics of


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