Print; color: rgb(34, 34, 34); font-family: Verdana, Geneva, sans-serif; border-style: dotted !important; border-color: rgb(0, 0, 0) !important;">

NOTE: In what may seem a paradox, in this first of two updates on the GMO situation in China, we are publishing an article (below) dating from 2011. This is because the concerns it describes about GMO safety have not gone away but have escalated in China, as we'll show in part 2.

The article describes health and reproductive problems in animals and humans that are believed to have eaten GMOs.

We wonder if these concerns explain why China has not yet approved Monsanto's new GM soybean, Intacta RR2, for import. Intacta RR2 is glyphosate-tolerant and incorporates Bt toxin for pest resistance.

Last year, Brazilian farmers were advised not to grow Intacta RR2 because of the absence of approval from China:

Europe has not shown China's caution and has approved Intacta RR2 for import as food and feed.
China ploughs a new corn furrow
By Peter Lee
Asia Times
Oct 8 2011

The world's major seed companies are trying to outrun skepticism and bad economics to dominate the world's seed supply with expensive proprietary products. Billions of dollars and the future of the world's food supply are at stake.

The Chinese government is caught between its desire to radically increase agricultural output and its fear of growing concerns by citizen activists over its lackadaisical enforcement of its food safety responsibilities.

As China struggles to cope with rocketing corn demand and a tightening international market, the spotlight has been turned on the DuPont Corporation and its "Xianyu" aka XY335 corn seed.

In a mere five years, XY335 has emerged as the dominant corn variety in north China. However, its rise has been dogged by suspicions that one of its parent strains is genetically modified.

Now China's Ministry of Agriculture has floated the idea that its moratorium on commercial use of genetically modified (GM) seed would continue - with the exception of corn.

Maybe that would open the door to new GM strains of corn seed; and maybe that would shut the door on calls to investigate the allegation that GM corn is already growing in China's fields.

China still relies on wheat to make bread or noodles, with rice as a staple. But as its more prosperous citizens increase their meat consumption, China requires enormous amounts of corn to feed poultry and livestock.

A pound of rice from the field is a pound of rice on the table. A pound of wheat is a pound of bread.

But a pound of corn turns into half a pound of chicken; less than a quarter pound of pork; and only a couple ounces of beef.

If meat is to continue to come to the table, enormous amounts of corn are required.

And, if a nation's government has decided to participate in the great ethanol boondoggle, then additional millions of tons of corn are required as feedstock.

China, while trying to rein in its runaway ethanol industry, found itself producing 155 million tons of corn in 2011 - while consuming 156 million tons.

China, which has long since abandoned the objective of self-sufficiency in soybeans, now faces the prospect of becoming a significant net importer of corn.

Ironically, China's loss of food security in the 1970s was a key factor in the economic and agricultural reforms that transformed China. Now, as a result of its economic boom, it must decide whether it is to rely on the international market for an even greater fraction of its food needs.

The current policy for grains is 95% self-sufficiency; but it looks like the government is considering easing that guideline to 90%. [1]

It is also looking to boost corn output.

An important potential source of increased output is improved yields: more corn per hectare. According to the agribusiness industry, the savior has arrived: genetically modified seed.

GM corn, produced by Monsanto, DuPont and a variety of other genetics companies, has taken the US farm belt by storm.

According to the US Department of Agriculture, 88% of American corn fields are planted with GM corn. Whether or not this is a good thing generates a lot of debate and it is by no means clear that GM corn has accounted for increased yields.

Since the 1930s, corn yields have improved at a remarkably steady rate of 1.6 bushels/acre/per year in the United States. There has been no marked acceleration since the 1990s, when GM corn was first introduced.

An important factor is, perhaps, the fact that the genetic modifications implemented to date in corn (and, for that matter, cotton and soybeans, the other two major markets) do not increase the yield potential of the seed.

Increasing yield potential is still a matter of painstaking traditional breeding practices in the field, not the insertion of miracle high-yield DNA into corn germ plasm in the laboratory.

Genetic modification deals solely with the mission of "protecting the yield potential" of superior hybrid varieties.

In practical terms, this means playing some interesting tricks with the corn genome to make it easier to deal with the weeds and critters that afflict the crop, so that less of it gets spoiled and the farmer is able to gain the full advantage of the superior (natural) genetics.

GM seed began with a rather crude concept: herbicide tolerance.

It involved modifying the genome of a broad-leaf crop, soybean, so it could survive a dousing of herbicide that targets broad-leaf weeds.

It is no coincidence that the biggest players in genetically modified seed are also the world's biggest producers of herbicides: Monsanto, DuPont (which purchased the venerable hybrid corn outfit Pioneer), and Dow.

The big winner was Monsanto, which placed big early bets in biotech, perfected and licensed the broadleaf herbicide-tolerant gene, and also managed to sell a lot of its broadleaf herbicide, glyphosphate, aka Roundup along the way. At its peak in 2008, Roundup contributed US$2 billion in profit (not revenue) to Monsanto's bottom line.

Corn got into the GM act in a big way with the development of Bt corn. "Bt" stands for Bacillus thuringiensis, a bacteria that causes caterpillars' guts to explode when they eat it. Caterpillars (like the European corn borer, which afflicts corn in the US as well and China's headache, the Asian corn borer) can reduce corn yields by 5% to 30% depending on the degree of infestation.

Genes that enabled corn plants to produce Bt were inserted into the genome. In fact, they were inserted multiple times, in a process known as stacking, so they would produce Bt in different parts of the plant and deal death to various underground as well as aerial pests at different stages of their life cycles.

A milestone of sorts was reached with the release of "Genuity Smartstax", a Monsanto/Dow joint effort that piled on six varieties of Bt expression with two additional herbicide tolerance traits on top for good measure.

The biggest enemy of the GM focus on weeds and pests is Charles Darwin, specifically natural selection.

Resistance to herbicides and Bt is inevitable. In fact, significant resistance to Bt can arise in a bug population in two generations, and then it can spread through a population like wildfire. When one considers that corn borers can go through as many as seven generations in a single growing season, the stage is set for some rather alarming developments.

Government regulators in the United States were keenly aware of the potential problems.

On the herbicide side, frequent rotation to non-Roundup crops is encouraged so that the weeds are not continuously exposed to the herbicide.

On the Bt side, it's even more complicated. The US Department of Agriculture wanted growers using Bt seed to create bug refuges equivalent to 50% of their acreage. These refuges, where non-Bt crops are grown, would sustain a population of non-Bt resistant pests that would mate with the evolving Bt-resistant pests across the fence and dilute the gene pool.

The seed companies were not enthralled with the idea that they would be structurally barred from 50% of the corn market. They successfully lobbied for a cut in the refuge percentage to 20%.

Acting on the corporate credo "More is Never Enough", Dow then argued that Genuity-Smartstax kills pests in multiple ways and inhibits the development of resistance. The US Environmental Protection Agency agreed, at least tentatively, and conditionally approved further reduction of the refuge area to 5% for stacked-gene corn. [2]

For those who place their faith in the virtue of corporations, the efficiency of the marketplace and the wisdom of the farmer, it is an unfortunate fact of life that herbicide-tolerant and pest-resistant seed, designed to make a farmer's life easier, encourages him or her to divert attention, energy, care and capital away from important herbicide and pesticide resistance issues to other aspects of the agribusiness operation - like increasing acreage.

Recently, there has been a spate of stories illustrating what happens when genetic problems get out of hand.

Pigweed is a nasty weed that can grow three inches (7.52cm) a day and to a height of two meters, and damage harvesting equipment. It's even nastier when it becomes resistant to Roundup, as farmers in the American South are learning:

    "Most years, Larry Steckel gets three to five calls on glyphosate failures. Earlier this summer, the veteran University of Tennessee row crop weed specialist was getting five per day.

    "'Glyphosate-resistant Palmer amaranth [pigweed] is blowing up, mainly in cotton and soybeans. Resistance was confirmed in three counties last year. We're up to at least 10 counties now - all on the west side of the state.'

    "Does Steckel have a handle on the tolerance/resistance levels?

    "'That's a huge concern. In the past, when you applied 22 ounces of Roundup WeatherMax to a resistant pigweed, it'd at least cause symptoms. Now, in some cases, we can spray 152 ounces and not see any symptoms.'

    "The rapid spread of the resistance has 'absolutely shocked' Steckel. 'It's hard to believe how quickly and strong the resistance has become and spread.'"[3]

If Roundup doesn't take out pigweed, then it has to be scorched with some other herbicide or chopped out.

Monsanto may not be overly concerned. After all, its Roundup resistant gene (which it licensed to virtually every other seed company) goes off patent in 2014 and it has a new herbicide and new gene waiting in the wings.

Meanwhile, researchers at Iowa State University, not exactly a hotbed of opposition to agribusiness, reported that rootworms were displaying resistance to one flavour of Bt bacteria in fields planted with Bt corn for three consecutive years.

Conclusions/significance, in their words:

"This is the first report of field-evolved resistance to a Bt toxin by the western corn rootworm and by any species of Coleoptera. Insufficient planting of refuges and non-recessive inheritance of resistance may have contributed to resistance. These results suggest that improvements in resistance management and a more integrated approach to the use of Bt crops may be necessary."[4]

To sum up: GM corn does not increase yield potential. It is a tool to protect yield potential through weed and insect control. Nor is it the sole measure available to control weeds and insects. It's supposed to be an easier, more effective way. But GM corn use brings with it the inherent risk of development of resistance. When that happens, its benefits go out the window.

Farmers find themselves going backwards, not forward.

As the New York Times quoted one farmer struggling with Roundup-resistant pigweed:

    "Mr Anderson and farmers throughout the East, Midwest and South are being forced to spray fields with more toxic herbicides, pull weeds by hand and return to more labor-intensive methods like regular plowing.

    "'We're back to where we were 20 years ago,' said Mr Anderson, who will plough about one-third of his 3,000 acres [1,214 hectares] of soybean fields this spring, more than he has in years. 'We're trying to find out what works.'"[5]

Bear in mind that GM corn seed sells for about $10/acre more than conventional hybrids.

Ostensibly, this price level is necessary to recoup the vast research and development expenditures related to genetic modification.

However, Monsanto was booking profits of up to $2 billion a year on Roundup and a significant portion of these profits probably got plowed into the work of developing herbicide-resistant GM seeds that would sell more Roundup.

Over the past 20 years since biotech corn came on the market, the price of GM seed has increased 139%, while conventional hybrid corn increased 49%. The increase in conventional hybrid seed prices is roughly parallel with improvements in yield - which appear to be largely attributable to traditional enhancements in plant genetics, not gene modification techniques - an indication that the price/value relationship is steady.

An increase of 139% in the price of GM seeds is perhaps an indicator that cost-benefit equation may be out of whack. That also increases the anxiety of poorer countries that their farmers will be forced to purchase ever-more expensive seed after they get hooked on GM products (and the farm practices that sustain it).

It seems more likely that farmers were enticed into paying a premium for GM seed that included no additional yield potential over conventional hybrids, and offered some short-term cost and efficiency advantages in weed and pest management that, in the long term, might well be illusory.

As the vice president of the National Corn Growers Association (and vociferous Monsanto critic/litigant) Troy Roush made the point that the real attraction of Bt seed was that it permitted farmers to skimp on important issues of pest and weed management and concentrate on increasing acreage instead:

"The increased ease of use and convenience of herbicide tolerant crops enabled many farmers to significantly increase crop acreage which helped to offset higher production costs and, in some cases, lower yields. Biotech companies encouraged farm expansion by offering discounts for buying seed in bulk.

"The advent of glyphosate tolerant weeds necessitated the return to using tillage for weed control, eliminating the time savings that was initially afforded by using biotech crops.

"Farmers who expanded farm size are now finding it difficult, if not impossible, to manage the larger operations now that additional time is required for weed management," [Roush] said. [6]

From the view of US agrichemicals and genetics producers, maybe the answer to new problems of resistance is new herbicides and more complicated anti-pest genetics.

But, as the problems and costs of the GM strategy multiply for US farmers, maybe the end of an exciting and profitable run in North America is on the horizon - and salvation may come from overseas, from big nations with enormous grain production and issues. places like India and China, where governments crave a yield-improving silver bullet.

Pioneer, a subsidiary of DuPont, has achieved some remarkable results in yield with its Xianyu 335 hybrid corn variety.

Development of the variety began in China in 2000, the seed - produced by two local partners of Pioneer inside China - came on the market in 2005, and sales exploded in 2008-2009.

XY335 is now the second-most popular hybrid corn seed in China, with over 40 million hectares under cultivation.

Pioneer has also been dogged by rumours that the seed's male parent, PH4CV, is genetically modified, and that, in addition to high yields, XY335 also delivers mutations and sterility in pigs and rats that eat the corn.

GM corn is not approved for commercial use in China.

In 2010, the International Economic Herald published an article based on months of field reporting describing the rapid penetration of XY335 into Shaanxi and other areas. It attributed XY335's success to its intrinsic superiority, and also the efforts of a highly-motivated, commission-driven sales force that carried the XY335 message to every doorstep and ate the lunch of the sleepy, undercapitalized state-run seed corporations.  

The good news for Pioneer was erased by an editor's afterword. It declared that it had received reports of abnormalities in areas where a lot of XY335 was grown and consumed. It sent back its reporter for a second look, and tentatively stated:

    "The population of rats decreased, sows miscarried ... various kinds of animal abnormalities caused one to be uneasy and bewildered. Increase in natural predators, mouldy corn, ecological pollution ... these various possibilities were refuted one by one. The only remaining factor that tied all these animal abnormality clues together was the feed that these animals had consumed: XY 335."[7]

It also reported allegations that XY335 was a genetically modified organism, and that the reported animal abnormalities were caused by genetic modifications.

These concerns mirrored some studies in Europe and North America concerning the potential dangers of introducing new plant genetics into the food chain. Despite government assurances that Bt is only toxic to caterpillars, people worry about new sliced-and-diced bacteria sloshing around in their food supply - and their own innards.

The fact that some genetic modifications actually reduce yields - instead of increasing or sustaining them - in unexplained ways also gives many people the willies.

There are billions of dollars of sales - and millions of dollars of industry-supported research - at stake, and the international seed producers have not been shy in protecting their interests, and critics of GM foods are the targets of systematic rebuttals.

One study claimed that birth defects, far from being caused by Bt corn, were caused by damaged, fungus-infected non-Bt corn and proposed:

    "Perhaps faced with results like these, government regulators around the world should require farmers to plant Bt corn."[8]

Touche, safe food advocates!

The 2005 patent for one of XY335's parent lines, PH4CV, certainly envisages genetic modification [GMW comment: the patent mentions that PH4CV can be genetically modified by insertion of transgenes, not that it is already GM]. It reads:

    "Methods for producing a maize plant containing in its genetic material one or more transgenes and to the transgenic maize plants produced by that method."[9]

In a rebuttal, Pioneer vociferously denied that XY335 contains a GM component. Pioneer China expressed "pain in its heart" that "the correct understanding and normal use of XY335 by its farmer friends" was being disrupted. It also promised to report this situation to the relevant departments and threatened legal action to protect its interests. [10]

Attempting to defuse the situation, the president of Pioneer China stated that its success was attributable to good seed with high viability and superior customer service, not genetic secret sauce. [11]

That denial has not placated the citizen activists who raise questions about the safety of China's food supply and the Chinese government has been pushed into an interesting corner. Food safety is an important issue, and it evokes strong emotions.

Lax enforcement of food regulations led to a series of food scandals, such as the melamine milk scandal, that have impacted the prestige of the Chinese government overseas and at home.

As a matter of politics, the Chinese government is officially extremely conservative when it comes to approving GM crops for human use. But what about soybeans?

Since it moved away from a policy of soybean self-sufficiency in the 1990s, China imports tens millions of tons of soybeans every year, 80% of it GM soybeans from the US and Argentina. The oil is extracted for human consumption, and the meal is fed to chickens and pigs. [12]

There is the suspicion that the Chinese government is slow-walking approval of GM seeds in order to give the domestic seed industry - undercapitalized, technologically backward and reliant on underfunded agricultural institutes for new varieties - time to catch up, and to pressure foreign owners of superior genetics to shift ownership and development to China.

Certainly, while food safety advocates are concerned about the potential dangers of XY335, the Chinese government appears more concerned with the possibility that Chinese agriculture will find itself dependent on foreign genetics whose supply and price will be determined in Western boardrooms rather than Chinese ministries or corporations.

China is becoming a net corn importer, something that makes the Chinese government rather uneasy.

The dominant local hybrid corn variety, Zhengdian 958, has been around too long and is showing vulnerability to pests. Once ZD958 falls by the wayside, DuPont/Pioneer's XY335 will be the dominant supplier of corn seed in China, something that also makes the Chinese government uneasy.

Despite the concerns of food safety activists, it looks like the Chinese government plans a move into GM corn in the near future.

On September 21, the Economic Examiner reported on a backgrounder from the Ministry of Agriculture that stated that GM wheat and rice seed would not be commercialized over the next five to 10 years.

Corn was another story.

Since corn is primarily consumed as an animal and ethanol feedstock, the ministry's consultants believe the seed industry can turn to GM corn seed without the same anxiety that GM rice or wheat would entail. (The issue of China's addiction to GM soybean oil and meal was not addressed).

Therefore, the commercialization of GM corn seed in the next five to 10 years is a distinct possibility. [13]

China does have major corn issues. Its average yield per acre is 80 bushels/acre, about half the US average. And it does have a troublesome corn borer problem that requires laborious measures to control. Bt corn would help. However, GM corn will not lead to a breakthrough in yields.

A major advantage of GM corn in the West - that it allows acreage increases for farmers who otherwise would be overwhelmed by time-consuming weed and pest management issues - is not as important in China, with its limited arable land, small plot size and large farming population.

Superior conventional seed genetics, improved seed processing and viability, and increased planting densities will be needed to close the yield gap.

Duplicating the economic imperatives and policies of Western GM agribusiness probably will not.

Promoting GM seed is big business for seed companies, herbicide companies, research organizations and government ministries.

Whether it's good business for the farmer is another question entirely.

1. China to boost domestic corn output to meet demand - govt, The Guardian, Sep 29, 2011.
2. Genuity-Smartstax, the Eight Transgene Corn: An Amazing Advancement in Crop Genetic Engic, FBAE, Aug 22, 2009.
3. Resistant pigweed ‘blowing up' in Mid-South, Delta Farm Press, Jul 30, 2008.
4. Field-Evolved Resistance to Bt Maize by Western Corn Rootworm, PloSOne.
5. Farmers Cope With Roundup-Resistant Weeds, New York Times, May 3, 2010.
6. Super weeds put USDA on hotseat, Southeast Farm Press, Aug 19, 2010.
7. Click here for text.
8. Bt corn reduces serious birth defects, Western Farm Press, Oct 27, 2004.
9. Inbred maize line PH4CV, Free Patents Online, May 24, 2005.
10. Click here for the Chinese text.
11. Click here for the Chinese text.
12. China told to develop its own GM food, Xinhua, Aug 23, 2010.
13. Click here for the Chinese text.

Peter Lee writes on East and South Asian affairs and their intersection with US foreign policy.

(Copyright 2010 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)