How a Chinese acquisition could put genetically modified foods on menu

A proposed $43 billion takeover by a Chinese firm of a Swiss producer of genetically engineered seeds sets up a challenge to winning over Chinese consumers skeptical of GMOs.  

A woman checks her phone at the headquarters of China National Chemical Corporation in Beijing, in this July 20, 2009 file picture.

Like many in China, Liu Suola wants her country to be a leader in agricultural technologies. Yet when it comes to genetically engineered food, the Beijing housewife says she wants no part of it – at least not yet.

“I don’t think it is safe,” says Liu, who adds she is careful about everything she buys in China. “In Western countries they are still discussing the safety of genetically modified (GM) food.” The European Union, she notes, continues to restrict such foods on a case-by-case basis. 

Consumer resistance could present a major obstacle for President Xi Jinping, who wants China to be “bold” in embracing biotechnology and transforming domestic farming. After decades of gains, crops yields in China have flattened, and the government fears becoming overly dependent on imported food if agriculture isn’t adequately modernized. They see engineered crops – mainly wheat, rice, and corn – as a way to increase productivity and possibly reduce use of fertilizers and pesticides. 

As part of that strategy, state-owned ChemChina plans to purchase Syngenta, a Swiss producer of pesticides and genetically engineered seeds. If finalized, the $43 billion deal would be China’s largest overseas acquisition to date, possibly easing domestic concerns over the introduction here of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). 

GMOs currently banned 

Yet it remains to be seen if the Syngenta takeover will change the landscape in China for GMOs. Currently, the government effectively bans the sale of all such foods, with the exception of cooking oils, papaya, and imported animal feed. 

At the same time, it is pouring money into research into transgenic seeds and other biotechnology.

Carl Pray, a Rutgers University economist who specializes in Chinese agriculture, says the Syngenta acquisition could calm a major government worry, namely that foreign companies will dominate GM food in China. But, he adds, “it may not ease the concerns of consumers who are largely focused on food safety.”

While China’s leaders don’t always consider public opinion in making their decisions, food and family health are highly sensitive issues. In 2010, consumers were stunned to learn that large volumes of cooking oil in China had been found to include grease recovered from municipal drains. Two years earlier, six toddlers were killed and tens of thousands sickened by milk tainted by melamine. 

Because of that poisoned milk, Chinese traveling abroad regularly bring home suitcases filled with milk power, apparently unaware that certain milk powders can contain genetically modified additives.

Over the years, Chinese consumers have been bombarded with conflicting messages about GMOs. While international food companies have tried to win over consumers via advertising and marketing, campaign groups ranging from Greenpeace to Maoist nationalists have stoked fears about so-called “frankenfoods.” Anti-GMO activists have threatened Chinese scientists involved in genetic engineering.

At times, Chinese officials have contributed to public worries by raising questions of national food security. In 2013, Peng Guangqian, a deputy secretary-general of China’s National Security Policy Committee, wrote a commentary comparing GM food to a “new kind of opium” being forced upon China by the West. Mr. Peng’s commentary, published in Global Times, an arm of the People’s Daily, accused US firms like Monsanto and Dupont of dumping GM products in China.

More recently, however, Chinese officials and state newspapers have taken a noticeably softer line on GMOs and international food companies. Over the last year, state media has touted US studies concluding the GM food is safe, while arguing that China needs new strains of crops that can withstand pests and droughts. 

“The media position is coming more in line with the official position,” sai Yong Gao, a Chinese-born executive for Monstanto who co-chairs the Agriculture Forum for the American Chamber of Commerce in Beijing. “From our standpoint, it is moving in the right direction.”

Removing suspicion?

For their part, Syngenta executives hope the acquisition, which still must be approved by US and European regulators, could help open doors to the world’s largest untapped food market. In a recent interview with Reuters, the company’s chief operating officer, Davor Pisk, said Syngenta is confident that China wants to move ahead with more GM crops

“One of the benefits of ChemChina acquiring Syngenta is to hopefully remove some of the suspicion around modern technologies as they relate to agriculture amongst Chinese consumers,” Mr.  Pisk told Reuters.

Some US business leaders are hopeful that, if Syngenta becomes a Chinese subsidiary, Beijing will be more welcoming to other multinational food companies. But they acknowledge the future is uncertain.

“There is a natural tendency to support the domestic industry. That’s a concern,” says James M. Zimmerman, chairman of the American Chamber of Commerce in China. He adds that his group and others have argued that Beijing will need wider collaboration to address its agricultural challenges. 

On China’s closely monitored Internet, the Syngenta deal isn’t a huge topic of debate, but it is being discussed. Whether they are for or against GM food, Chinese netizens tend to agree that the government must be backing the Syngenta purchase, since ChemChina relies on significant financial support from state-owned banks.

One of the most strident online voices against GMOs is Wu You Zhi Xiang, a nationalist group (also known as Utopia) that seeks to rehabilitate Mao Zedong and his brand of socialism. In a recent posting on a web forum, the group criticized the pending purchase of Syngenta as “a trap.” It said the purchase of a food biotech company would “destroy China’s agriculture” and do nothing to help the nation’s food security.

President Xi, whose father was a Communist Party leader purged during Cultural Revolution, clearly does not want to take Chinese agriculture back to the Mao era. But he also seems aware there are risks in moving forward too aggressively. 

At an agricultural policy meeting in 2014 he was quoted as saying that China must be “bold” in studying genetic modification – “and be cautious in promoting it.”

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