Are you determined to stick to a diet of Non GMO foods in China?
With all the food safety scandals here, many expats might think GMO foods in China are more prevalent, less well regulated, and harder to spot than in the U.S.
However, you might be surprised to learn that China regulates GMOs (genetically modified organisms) very strictly, and in most ways more so than the U.S.
In this article we look at the history, current situation and regulations for GM foods and crops in China and show you how to spot them so you can stick to non gmo foods if you so wish.
One option for Shanghai expats who are looking for Non GMO foods is to choose organic foods, both imported and local. We have a list of suppliers of organic foods in Shanghai below. Click here to go directly to the list.
You can also choose products labeled as non gmo foods. Please read more details in our related article discussing labeling genetically modified foods in China.
If you would like to first read some background on what is genetically modified food before you learn about the situation in China below you can click here.
With 22 percent of the world's population relying on just seven percent of earth's arable land, the Chinese government takes food security as one of its primary concerns.
However, it has been very cautious when it comes to adopting GMO technology to increase agricultural production in China.
In fact, China does not allow commercial cultivation of any genetically modified (GM) foods except papaya. Apart from papaya, the only other GM-crop allowed to be grown commercially in China is GM cotton, which was approved in 1997.
China requires GMO crops to obtain several certificates, including a Bio-safety certificate, business certificate and seed production license, before they may be commercially cultivated.
In 2009 Bio-safety certificates were issued in China for some GM strains of rice and corn. These certificates allowed the crops to be planted only for research purposes and not for commercial sale or consumption.
The parameters of the research are also strictly controlled. In 2013 there was a big uproar in China when a US University, Tufts, apologized for feeding children in Southern China one of the strains of GM rice for a research experiment that had not been approved.
In August 2014 the bio-safety licenses for all the GM rice and GM Corn strains in China expired and were not renewed, thereby encouraging many proponents of sticking to non gmo foods in China.
Although all rice for sale in China legally must be Non-GMO strains, in 2014 it was reported by Central China Television (CCTV) that three out of five bags of rice randomly bought at supermarkets in Wuhan, the provincial capital of central China’s Hubei province, were found to contain GM rice varieties.
After this media exposure the Chinese government made it clear that there is no tolerance for the growing of unapproved GM-crops and that there would be harsh punishments for illegal sales of GM foods in China.
Many more stories appeared in the Chinese press in 2014 about the government destroying illegal GM-crops.
In September 2015 the Chinese Ministry of Agriculture said it would launch a new nationwide investigation into the illegal cultivation of GMO crops in China after reports of local grown GM soybeans being discovered.
In early 2016 after reports of GM rice and GM corn being discovered in several locations around China, Han Jun, deputy director of the Office of the Central Rural Work Leading Group stated that the government would increase supervision of genetically modified food technologies to prevent commercial cultivation of unauthorised varieties.
So does this ban on the commercial cultivation of all but one GM food crop in China mean we are consuming only Non GMO foods here?
Not necessarily. China allows certain strains of GMO soybeans, corn, rapeseed, and sugar beets to be imported as raw materials for processing into cooking oils and for animal feed. Most of these imports come from the US.
The Chinese government cites the fact that over 90% of US soya and corn crops already use GMO technology and China requires these imports for its food security:
“More than half of all cooking oil used in China is soybean oil, and 90 percent of that is made from imported GM soybeans, mainly from the United States and Brazil,” said Huang Dafang, a researcher from the Biotechnology Research Institute at the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences.
In late 2014 China approved the import of new strains of GM corn and soybeans that had been waiting for approval for many years.
During President Xi Jinping's state visit to the U.S. in September 2015 contracts were signed for record imports of U.S. soybeans, a vast majority of which will certainly be GM-crop varieties.
GM foods that have not been specifically approved, however, are strictly forbidden to be imported. Food importers in China must provide customs with Non GMO foods certificates with their food imports.
There are often stories in the Chinese press about shipments of imported food being blocked and destroyed by China customs due to unapproved GMOs being discovered.
China has invested heavily in developing testing methods so as to block imports of unapproved GMO foods. In 2014 it was reported that Chinese scientists were the first in the world to develop a comprehensive method to detect genetic modifications in one test.
So will it be easy to stick to a diet of non gmo foods in China in the future?
Probably not. In fact in September 2014 the Communist Party’s Literature Research Office published President Xi remark’s about GMO technology delivered in December 2013:
“GMO is a new technology, but also a new industry, and has broad prospects for development.
As a new item, society has debates and doubts on GMO techniques, which is normal. On this issue, I have to emphasize two points: First is to ensure safety, second is to innovate by ourselves. Which is to say, we must be bold in studying it, [but] be cautious in promoting it.
Industrial production of GMOs and commercialization must be strictly in accordance with the nation’s specified rules and techniques, moving steadily, ensuring no mishaps, taking into account safety factors. [We] must boldly research and innovate, dominate the high points of GMO techniques, and [we] cannot let foreign companies dominate the GMO market.”
So it is clear that the government's reluctance to approve the wide-scale import of GM foods in China is due more to worry about becoming reliant on foreign technology in this critical area of food production.
The Chinese government, therefore, is investing heavily in its own GMO food technology development.
In early 2015 deputy director Han Jun said that China would invest to catch up with the world's leading countries in the research of genetically modified (GM) food technology;
“a country of 1.3 billion people, faces increasing constraints of environment and resources in agricultural development. GM technology is a "promising and rising" field that China can't fall behind”.
In January 2015 it was also reported that two strains of GM rice were given new safety certificates allowing for cultivation for research purposes for another four years.
Apart from continued GMO rice research in China, several companies are applying for renewing bio-safety certificates for cultivating GMO corn in China.
Although not yet issued by the summer of 2015, China’s Agriculture Ministry is clearly supporting these efforts by running major research projects.
Experts say that commercial cultivation and selling of GM corn in China could be realized within 3-5 years after new GMO safety certificates are issued.
In another sign of the importance the government places on this technology, the first policy document issued by the Communist Party of China Central Committee in 2016 revealed that China will step up GMO research and promote the results as long as their safety can be ensured.
In what would be China's largest overseas acquisition to date, in early February 2016 ChemChina made a bid of over US$43 billion for the Swiss based agriculture company Syngenta AG.
Syngenta is a producer of agrochemicals and hybrid seeds. It also conducts genomic research to develop gmo crop seeds.
This acquisition would be a fast-track way for China to acquire gmo food technology which it believes is necessary for its food security.
There only a handful of sure-fire ways to consume only non gmo foods in China:
Humans have been improving the output of agriculture crops for hundreds of years. Traditional methods include cross pollination, cross-breeding, grafting, and selective breeding.
These methods affect the genetic makeup of organisms, but through natural means of selection or by mixing plants of similar, closely related species. Foods derived from such plants, therefore, are still considered non gmo foods.
What we now call genetically modified organisms (GMOs) were developed in the 1980’s when scientists were able to insert a new gene into an organism or remove a gene from an organism through the use of biotechnology in the lab.
This enabled scientists to mix the genes of entirely different unrelated organisms; such as inserting the genes of a bacteria into the DNA of a plant.
According to the WHO genetically modified food is food derived from organisms whose genetic material (DNA) has been modified in a way that does not occur naturally, e.g. through the introduction of a gene from a different organism.
There is a big debate about the safety of genetically modified foods in China and in the West.
Defenders of the technology emphasize GMO technology:
Opponents of GMO technology warn against: