As of 2021 the population of China stands at 1.402 billion people, making China the home of 18.47% of the world’s population. Despite these incredible statistics, China possesses only 6% of the world’s fresh water supply and 10% of the world’s arable land. It is easy to see how and why food security are such a critical issue in China.
This is not to say that China doesn’t produce food. In the year 2000, 70% of the Chinese population worked in agriculture. This is reflected in China’s position as the top producer of rice in the world, contributing over 30% of global production. Over time the number of Chinese inhabitants working on farms has decreased to around 45%.
Genetically modified, or GM, crops may help China with its food shortage problem – but this idea is being met with some resistance. Although these crops do exist they are tightly controlled. Currently, GM papaya is the only edible GM crop licensed for commercial production in China.
In this article I will give you a brief history of GM crops in China, and how GM papaya may lead the way to an innovative and sustainable food future.
Table of Contents
What are GMOs?
Genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, are plants or animals that have had their DNA artificially altered. In some ways, GMOs have been around for millennia as humans have used selective breeding to create certain types of fruits, vegetables, and flowers.
But the GMOs we are talking about today is where the DNA of a plant has been changed with technology. This is done for many reasons – such as to increase the nutritional value of food, or to protect organisms from disease. Genetically modified crops have been slowly growing in popularity over the years, with China at the helm of global innovation.
Adoption of GM crops in China
The 1970s saw an explosion in annual crop production in China. Total grain production increased by over 100 metric tons between 1978 and 1984, owing in part to the liberal use of pesticides by farmers. However, the good times couldn’t last forever, and it wasn’t long until the devastating effects of pesticides became apparent.
By the early 1980s, China had begun to shift their focus away from pesticides and towards genetic modification. China was the first country in the world to begin commercial farming of GM plants. Despite the initial success of virus-resistant tobacco varieties and vitamin A enriched rice, the introduction of GM crops was not smooth sailing.
The Golden Rice Controversy
GM crops seemed to be the ideal solution for China’s food supply issues. But skepticism around the safety of GM crops was widespread and reached a boiling point in 2012 with the Golden Rice Controversy. Golden Rice is rice which has been genetically modified to contain a large amount of vitamin A, a nutrient essential for normal growth in children. Vitamin A deficiency has killed millions of children in the developing world and is thought to affect a third of all children under five. The need for a solution couldn’t be more apparent.
Despite the benefits Golden Rice could have had for malnourished children in China, it was banned after a study was conducted on children in China without their parents’ knowledge. The rice itself wasn’t found to be dangerous, if anything it was lifesaving, but using unsuspecting participants was highly unethical.
We can see then, why GM plants can be so difficult to introduce into a farming culture, even when they hold some benefits. Today China heavily limits farming of GM crops.
What GM Crops Are Grown in China Today?
Of the 65 countries with regulatory approval for commercial GM crop farming, China is one of the most restrictive. Today only two GM plants are permitted to be commercially farmed in China: virus resistant papaya, and Bt cotton. Initially, there were several different types of GM food crop being grown in China including sweet peppers and tomatoes, but these were quickly banned.
Why Was GM Papaya Developed?
The papaya-producing Hawaiian district of Puna first reported a case of Papaya Ringspot Virus (PRSV) in 1992. To make matters worse, it was quickly discovered that pesticides couldn’t stop the spread of PRSV, and the papaya industry of Hawaii collapsed.
Papaya is an important food product in China due to its use in food, industry, and traditional medicines. Unfortunately, PRSV also had a devastating impact on Chinese wholesale papaya production. In response, the Chinese adopted a GM variety of papaya that was resistant to PRSV.
Research into a virus resistant papaya began in China in the 1990s and the final GM papaya was finally approved for commercial use in 2006. Today, China grows around 9,600 hectares of GM papaya every year.
The government has never released data on the profitability of these fruits, so it is difficult to determine how successful the crop has been compared to its non-GM counterpart.
However, considering that the papaya is the only edible crop still allowed to be commercially grown in China, it’s safe to say that it has had a positive socioeconomic impact.
Are there risks with GM food?
Genetically modified foods have always been controversial. Although GM foods promise an end to malnourishment and crop failure, they also pose risks. These risks are associated with introducing non-natural organisms into the environment.
The Golden Rice from 2012 was an excellent example of how GM food can improve health but at the cost of public support. In fact, even before 2012 there was already unease among the public about GM food. A 2010 study based in China found that 84% of the 50,000 respondents would avoid GM foods out of concerns for their safety.
As GM foods are comparatively new, it’s difficult to say that they definitely won’t have long term health implications. To this date, no evidence has been found that eating GM food is harmful, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist.
This isn’t an article about the pros and cons of GM crops, but it’s important to consider the arguments when talking about the history of GM papaya in China.
Legislation and Regulations in China
All GM crops in China are closely regulated by the Ministry of Agriculture (MOA). The MOA oversees every step of agricultural GMO production from testing to processing, import, and marketing.
Even when a license is granted by the MOA, all agricultural GM crops must pass a biosafety assessment. This long and costly process is split into five stages:
- Laboratory research
- Restricted field trials
- Environmental release field trials
- Preproduction testing
- Application for certificate
From here, the MOA classifies each new GM crop according to their level of risk to people, plants, animals, and the ecological environment. Throughout all stages of applying for a biosafety certificate the researchers must fully cooperate with the MOA and the application is halted upon failing any stage. In many ways, this process is very similar to pharmaceutical development and requires similar time and funding commitments.
The Chinese government has pushed forward with plans to increase the amount of money and research being committed to GM agriculture. To overcome the consumer fears of the Chinese people, the MOA is also investing large sums of money into GM food safety assessment and public education.
It is in the MOAs best interests to have the approval of the Chinese people, as well as a well-established GM crop industry to support the economy.
Where are we today?
China launched the era of GMO research and have sold patents to farmers around the world. They have had a complicated history with their own use of GM crops, often introducing and then banning GM crop varieties due to pressure from consumers and farmers alike. Papaya has remained one of the most essential GM crops in China and may be paving the way to expansion of the Chinese GM agriculture industry.
In recent years Chinese regulatory bodies have dedicated more resources to promoting the benefits of GM crops in their food chain. Whether or not this will allow them to benefit from their own innovation is still to be seen.