Chinese discord over Syngenta highlights GE concerns

A letter signed by 400 citizens highlights Chinese consumer concerns over growing and eating genetically engineered produce.

Roughly 400 Chinese citizens have signed a letter protesting state-owned ChemChina’s bid to acquire seed and agrochemical company Syngenta.

The open display of citizen dissent in a country where protest of any kind is often punished reflects deep consumer concern over the introduction of genetically engineered (GE) crops into Chinese farmland. The letter also spotlights divided opinion, both in and out of government, over the role biotech should have in shoring up the country’s food security.

Chinese private and state-owned firms have been snapping up overseas food companies and farmland, in a bid to ensure food production and supply chains to a country where calorie intake continues to grow. In February, a consortium of Chinese state-owned grain trader Cofco and private equity firm Hopu Investment finalised a buy-out of Hong Kong agricultural production and trading business Noble Agri. Two Chinese companies are thought to be among the front runners looking to buy Australian cattle giant S Kidman, and Chinese individuals have targeted everything from dairy in Australia to sorghum fields in Kansas.

Since its emergence in the 1990s, GE seed technology has been a major driver for growth in Syngenta and its fellow agrochemical giant Monsanto and DuPont. GE seeds are now present on more than 90 percent of US corn acreage.

Critics of GE crops say that their spread poses a long-term risk to food supply, and that GE produce could endanger human health.  However, GE plants can improve yields through traits like herbicide resistance or drought tolerance.

Even before ChemChina’s bid to take over Syngenta, Chinese president Xi Jinping vowed in 2015 that his country would “boldly research” and “dominate” advances in GE farming. The statement was perceived as an indication China would change its  policy, which limits the use of GE foods to livestock feed, cooking oils and papayas.

Even the first generation of chemical-tolerant seeds has proven hard to resist, regardless of the regulations. In January, a Greenpeace investigation found 93 percent of samples taken from Chinese corn fields tested positive for outlawed GE traits.