A third postcard from China: fascinated by biotechnology, but cautious

Contrary to much reporting in the West, China is having to pay attention to public concerns about biotechnology, says Zhao Zhizen, TV science broadcaster.

By | July 14, 2000

It's been a long time since we Chinese remained content with whatever we could stuff into our stomachs to assuage our hunger. People are becoming picky and choosy. Apart from being particular about a balanced diet, many people are beginning to seek 'natural' food. Already, small eggs laid by locally fed 'native chickens' are more valuable than big ones laid by 'alien chickens'; and wild soft-shelled turtles and crabs are more costly than artificially bred ones.

In other words, Mother nature is preferred to science. So, inevitably transgenic foods are meeting with consumer doubt, fear and even resistance. Fears about mad cow disease and other perceived threats are discussed at the dining table and in the tea-house.

In the media we've seen not only straight science reporting but also scare stories just like those in the West. For example there was widespread reporting of experiments at Cornell University in which the pollen of transgenic (Bt) maize, sprinkled onto the leaves of hare's lettuce, led to the death of 44% of emperor butterflies and the underdevelopment of other larvae.

Inevitably, we now have both biotechnology fans and sceptics in China. As in the West, the main concerns among the media and the scientists, have been:

• If transgenic pollen can poison insects, couldn't it also poison man? Can it really be that the western proverb "one man's meat is another man's poison" will be fulfilled?

• Could crops containing the insecticidal Bt gene kill 'innocent' insects?

• Will pests evolve that are resistant to the transgenic pesticide?

• Will highly herbicide-resistant genes cross from genetically engineered grass plants to adjacent wild grass plants?

• Will transgenic crops spread uncontrollably?

• Would the development and use of the so-called 'terminator' gene give too much power to the multinational corporations that developed these crops?

Nevertheless most Chinese do advocate and believe in science. The general opinion on biotechnology in China could be roughly boiled down as follows:

• If China is to free herself from the pressure of limited resources and develop high-yield, highly efficient agriculture, she has to rely on modern biotechnology.

• Science was always a double-edged sword that, while bringing bliss to man, can also bring troubles. But all troubles should only be solved by science itself. All the more so when there is no adequate evidence to show harm from genetically modified food or runaway biological proliferation. And transgenic food is totally different from food with additives put into it.

• Historically, many sciences and technologies were elementary and imperfect and were often not accepted and recognized when they first emerged. But with the passage of time they matured until they became routine.

• The 21st century is a century of bioscience. Biotechnology has become the locomotive that pulls other technologies. Whoever gives up its research and development gives up the most important historic opportunity.

At the same time, many Chinese scientists believe that biotechnology should be tackled circumspectly and under guidance from authoritative bodies that are objective, impartial, unprejudiced and not driven by commercial interests. Products containing GMOs should not be made available on the market until they are officially approved. Commercially available GM foods should be labelled as such.

The Government has responded to these public views. In 1993, the State Scientific and Technological Commission of China promulgated Procedures for the Management of the Safety of Genetic Engineering. In 1996, the Ministry of Agriculture issued Procedures for the Implementation of the Management of the Safety of Agribiogenetic Engineering, stipulating that GM products should pass through four steps: the laboratory, intermediate experiments, examination and approval, and commercialized production. In addition, authoritative appraisal groups composed of experienced specialists and scholars have been set up. So far, only six varieties of transgenic plant have been approved to be made commercially available, including two varieties of bollworm-resistant cotton, one storage-worthy tomato, one CMV-resistant tomato, one pimento and one color-transformed petunia.

So as you can see the attitude of the Chinese government has been very strict and careful.

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