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China struggles with GMO foods

07/08/2013 @ 11:23am

A Chinese agricultural official's unsupported claims about the carcinogenic risks of consuming genetically modified soybeans have rekindled a fervent debate about the use of genetically modified crops in a country with ever-expanding food needs.

Wang Xiaoyu, deputy secretary general of the Heilongjiang Soybean Association, a supporter of local non-genetically modified soybeans, recently told local media that people who consume soy oil made with genetically modified soybeans "are more vulnerable to developing tumors and suffering sterility" ( in Chinese)

To back his claim, Mr. Wang noted that regions where consumption of GMO soy oil was high, such as the southern provinces of Fujian and Guangdong, also boasted relatively high levels of cancer.

Experts were quick to call Mr. Wang's methodology into question, with several noting that he had failed to present even a scintilla of laboratory evidence linking GMO soy oil with cancer or fertility problems. But in a country already deeply suspicious of genetically modified crops, social media users took the idea and ran with it, sending fear over carcinogenic oil seeping through the Chinese Internet.

"We should replace all the leaders' special provisions with GMO food," wrote one user of Sina Corp.'s popular Weibo microblogging platform. "Good things should be reserved for the Communist Party."

The strong response to Mr. Wang's conjecture appears to have been fueled in part by a recent government decision to approve imports of new varieties of genetically modified soy beans, as well as by rumors that people in the U.S. don't eat the genetically modified foods they produce.

In June, Chinese agricultural authorities approved imports of three new genetically modified soy bean varieties, including two produced by U.S. seed giant Monsanto and one by German chemical producer BASF. GMO opponents criticized the country's agriculture ministry for failing to be transparent about the approvals.

The ministry said in a statement that it had received import applications from the two companies in 2010, but a search of the ministry website turns up no documents or notices indicating applications were filed. The ministry did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Meanwhile, rumors that U.S. consumers didn't eat genetically modified food fed into existing paranoia in China about GMO products, which have been described on some Chinese Internet discussion boards as a "soft bomb" unleashed by the U.S. to destroy China and a U.S conspiracy to manipulate the global economy.

In fact, U.S. consumers eat large quantities of genetically modified food. Speaking in a panel discussion hosted on the website of the Communist Party mouthpiece People's Daily ( in Chinese), Li Ning, director of the Ministry of Agriculture's gene safety management division, noted that 70% of food in the U.S. contained genetically modified material.

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