In week 8, we had a lecture about “new” food and talked about the GM food, which is a buzzword in recent years. But there are totally different views about it. Some people think it is a necessary way to solve the food shortage with the increasing global population, while others think it is an insecure method because its advantages are always along with the potential biomedical risks and environmental side effects. China is an important case since China has the largest population in the world and world’s fourth largest producer of biotech crops[1]. Thus, its final decision on commercializing GM food will greatly affect the rest of Asia countries and global market. In this blog, I will use China as an example to explain the main challenge and public awareness in developing countries.

So what is GM food? According to WHO[2], Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) can be defined as “organisms (i.e. plants, animals or microorganisms) in which the genetic material (DNA) has been altered in a way that does not occur naturally by mating and/or natural recombination. It allows selected individual genes to be transferred from one organism into another, also between nonrelated species. Foods produced from or using GM organisms are often referred to as GM foods”. The main advantage of GM food is their ability that can solve future food security, especially for developing countries. But now in many developing countries, farmers still plant no GM food crops at all. Some countries (such as China and South Africa) are now planting GM cotton, but GM food and feed crops have not yet been grown commercially (see figure 1).

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Fig 1. Location of commercially grown genetically engineered (GE) crops[3]

According to Paarlberg[4][5], many developing countries invest increasing money in GM technology, but lack of political support. And he disagreed with a view (especially in the Falcon and Fowler paper[6]) that focus on intellectual property rights (IPR). He thought IPR is not a big problem anymore, because private companies will provide GM seeds and technology. Even though the IPR protections in the developing countries are weak, companies are willing to accept it as a price for gaining access to the lager developing world market. For example, Monsanto company invested Bt cotton in China market.

The biggest challenge of GM crops getting access to the developing countries seem to be the politicization and blockage of national biosafety screening processes[4]. In most developing countries, the only GM crop planting approvals have been for cotton. So in most developing countries, planting GM food crops is still illegal.

Why developing governments treat the biosafety approval process so carefully? In some views, it is because of some environmental risks of GM crops. But Paarlberg thought in some cases it is because of weak scientific and administrative capacity (such as Kenya). At the same time, they are afraid that they will lose the competitive power of export sales to Europe or Japan (especially food and feed crops), and it can be shown from Chinese case. Since the 1980s, the Chinese government invested heavily in GM technology, GM tobacco and cotton was approved in 1990s and 1997 respectively. However, the process has been stalled recently. In 2001, Chinese government illustrated that they will temporarily freeze GM commercial releases and one reason for this behavior is that the international consumer resists to GM foods. The commercial advantage to China of remaining a GM-free source of soybeans was recently underscored in 2001, at that time Korea purchased 300,000 tons of Chinese soybeans in order to take place of “GM contaminated” beans from the US and Argentina. The export factor is also proved by some developing countries (China and India) where farmers can plant GM cotton while holding back on GM food and feed crops. Cotton is a critical raw material for export, so moving to GM cotton makes sense on export reasons, just as staying away from GM food and feed crops now also seems to make sense on export reasons.

I discussed the governments’ attitudes above, and what are the public views of GM food in developing countries?Some studies show that the resistance of GM food from consumers have impacts on the food industry. Thus, understanding the consumers’ attitudes toward GM foods is not only important to the policymakers, but also to the biotechnology industry, food manufacturers, and food retailers[7].  According to Kynda[8], increased crop production provided by GM foods would be a greater benefit to developing countries that have issues about food availability and nutrition, while the potential drawbacks are similar to the developed world. Both of greater advantages and lower risks lead to the positive attitudes to GM foods in developing countries.

In China, the results of several consumer surveys are mixed. In some cases, there is one extreme that Chinese consumers do not accept GM food, especially in HongKong (Greenpeace reports[9][10]). On the other hand, according to Li[1]and Huang[11], in Beijing and some urban cites, Chinese consumers are willing to accept GM food. In Li’s study, there are positive views towards GM rice and GM soybean oil which are two main products of the Chinese diet. Huang used a large random sample of households which can truly represent urban China instead of several cities. And he found out the similar outcomes that the percentages of the consumers’ approval of and willingness to buy GM foods in China were high, which is much higher than other countries. However, both papers mentioned about the lack of GM knowledge. Most Chinese heard about GM food, but compared with developed countries’ consumers, their biotechnology knowledge was limited. Thus, new information about GM food may affect their opinions easily. This shows that the media can play an important role in determining consumers’ acceptance of GM foods. While in China, consumers are covered by positive media, which is controlled by the government.