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					                                                                            Xiao Ben Wang
                                GM & Chinese Agriculture

       Agriculture has always been an important part of China. For much of China‟s

history, it has been a civilization dominated by agriculture and the peasants who creates

it. The rise and fall of imperial dynasties have been based on actions of the peasant class.

China‟s agriculture-based economy continued for thousands of years and only recently

began to change. Changes in the past 30 years of modern China have dramatically

shifted the role of agriculture in modern Chinese society. Rapid industrialization in

recent decades created new China based around cities instead of the rural area. Many

peasants have left their farming lifestyle to find work in major cities. This huge

migration of the masses creates unique for Chinese agriculture. Increasingly China‟s top

leaders must find new ways to increase agriculture production in order to feed its

economic growth engine.

       Genetically modified crops have been around for decade but have not been

utilized fully due to safety and environmental concerns. The Chinese government have

invested heavily into this technology in hopes to finding answers to the woes of feeding

1.3 billion people. But are these genetically modified foods safe? How will they impact

the environment? What kind of economic forces are driving the development of GM

crops in China? What does development of genetically modified crops mean for the

common peasantry? How does genetically modified crops fit into the overall agricultural

trends of China? These are important questions that have come up in the discussion of

GM crops in China. This paper will attempt to provide some insights into answering

these important questions that will help define the future of 1/5 of the global population.
                                                                              Xiao Ben Wang


       The People‟s Republic of China is a vast land with a variety of environments.

The western parts of China consist mostly of mountainous regions and dry deserts.

Grasslands cover the northern part of China. Only the southeastern region contains fertile

plains for proper agriculture. This means though China is the world‟s fourth largest

nation, it only has 7% of the world‟s cultivable land(2).

       Most of the cultivable land has been used to produce stable foods for

consumption. The main food source in China is rice. Rice plantations reside mostly in

the southern region where warm winters and large amount rainfalls can sustain rice fields.

Wheat is another major food source, grown mostly in the northern regions. Traditionally

peasants raise a small amount of pigs, chickens, and plant vegetables to supplant their

diet of rice and wheat(1). Some farmers switched from agriculture to aquaculture,

converting their rice fields into ponds where they raise fish such as carp.

       For most of the 5,000 years of recorded Chinese history, agriculture has been the

base of Chinese society. Most of the population resides in the countryside, tolling away

at the land to harvest enough food for the family to eat. Landlords owned most of the land

and hired families to work on the land, taking a large share of the harvest afterwards.

Many tenet farmers lived on the edge of starvation and malnutrition. The peasants

survived on rice, wild vegetables and little meat. This way of agriculture continued for
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thousands of years until the Communist party won the civil war over the Nationalist and

united mainland China under one banner.

       In 1949, the People‟s Republic of China was officially established. With the

establishment of the PRC, the ruling communist party forever changed agriculture with a

massive redistribution of land. Landlords lost most of their land to peasants that once

worked for them. The land distribution gave many peasants the right to own land for the

first time. Agricultural production increased greatly in the early 1950‟s. Mao Zedong

decided to further his socialist vision by recollecting the land from the peasants and set

up communes. Communes are group work units in which large number of people work

the land. Farmers are told what to plant and with very little influence of their own on

how the land is used. The heads of the commune or higher authorities makes all the

major decisions. Their work progress is recorded as points. At the end of the harvest,

everyone gets a basic ration of food and other benefits if they gathered enough work

points. The commune system greatly limited the amount of economic incentives for

peasants to work hard to increase production. As a result, the overall amount of calories

available for daily consumption did not increase from the mid 1960‟s to the late 1970‟s.

Other important social events such as the great leap forward and the cultural revolution

also help stunt the growth of Chinese agricultural production until the late 1970‟s.

       This type of agricultural system continued until the late 1970‟s. By then the Mao

Zedong passed away, and with him the Cultural Revolution. Deng Xiaopeng took over
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leadership of the People‟s Republic of China and began to implement a series of changes

that would once again change the course of Chinese agriculture.

       As part of Deng‟s reform for the Chinese economy, rural residents were once

again allowed to own land in China and farm as they wish. The communes were shut

down and farm life returned to the style of early 1950‟s(7). Farmers once again can plant

crops of their choice. Most of the Chinese farm lands are owned by small families as

compared to many European and American countries where land is owned by

corporations. Recent historical events have prevented a small group of people or

corporations from obtaining a large mass of land from the farmers.

       Though farmers have more control than the commune days, the government still

retains much control over the agricultural industry. Farmers are only allowed to sell

crops to government buyers. This allows the central government to keep prices low and

stockpile crops in case of emergencies. Most of the seeds farmers purchase are also

developed and sold by the government. Because of these restrictions, farmers have a

hard time earning large profits from farming traditional staple foods such as rice and

wheat. Many farmers diversified into non-traditional crops such as mushrooms, special

vegetables, aquaculture(crabs, shrimp, etc), exotic meats(ostrich) or fur. Others have left

farming all together and traveled to major cities to look for higher paying work such as

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       China‟s rapid economic growth in past two decades has brought great changes to

its agricultural landscape. The economic base began to shift from agriculture to

manufacture and service. This shift of economic base occurs in many of the major cities

in China. These new coastal metroplises are the sites for most of the economic growth.

As a result, the economic growth in China spreads the wealth unevenly between the

urban and rural areas.

       Many farmers have great incentives to go into the city. Price controls on major

crops limits the income farmers can get from crops. A great number of farmers left their

farm live and flock into the cities in search of a better life. Constant construction in the

major cities creates a large number of low paying jobs for low skilled workers. Mines

and factories on the outskirts of major cities also provides new opportunities for farmers

as well. Many of these farmers who left their farm life have not abandon their farms.

These workers still have immediate family members attending the farm. Those who left

went in search of higher paying jobs to supplement the low income that receive from

farming. Besides changing the agricutural work force, economic growth has also

changed the demand for food as well.

       Since the end of the Cultural Revolution, the diet of the average Chinese person

changed dramatically. In thirty years, the calories supply has changed from 1,953 to

2,766 kcal per capita per day. The nearly 50% increase in calorie supply can be

attributed from improved farming techniques and reverting back to family farming for

profit. The increase in calories supplied serves as only part of the story. Where the
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calories come from is equally important. The proportion of calories supplied by rice

dropped about ten percentage points from 37% in mid 1960‟s to only 27% in mid-

1990‟s.(see chart 1) This drop of calories supplied by rice reflects the diversification of

Chinese diet.

       The diet of Chinese in the 1990‟s contains more vegetables, meats, sweeteners,

alcohol and fish as well. The rise of income enable more Chinese people purchase more

fresh fruits, vegetables, sweets, alcohol and meats as well. The consumption of eggs has

increased six folds compared to the 1960‟s. Fish supply increased more then four times

in the past thirty years. Overall meat consumption has risen by 300% since the 1960‟s.

Chart one shows the overall calories supply available per capital per year. It shows the

great increase in calories and diversification of the people‟s diet in the past thirty years.

The red section demonstrates meats having the greatest increase compared to the other

food types. With the consumption increase in more valued food types, consumption of

other food types have decreased significantly. Starchy roots consumption decreased 43

percent while pulses such as peas, beans and lentils decreased 83 percent since mid

1960‟s. A shift in the diet change places greater demand on meats and vegetables and

less on basic carbohydrates. This shift in the diet could translate into greater demand for

wheat production as it takes a large amount of wheat crops to raise animal for


       Increase in animal proteins will increase demand for basic grain as feed. Chart 2

shows the increase in meat protein consumption as income increases. The diet of an
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affluent individual would require a tripling of grain demand per year due to the increase

amount of animal protein consumed. However an increase amount of animal protein

would also mean much less demand for plant protein. Chart 3 shows how an increase in

animal feed did not increase maize production overall because of a shift from maize for

human consumption to animal feed. Also unique in China, many of the animals are

raised on small farms. On these farms, people feed pigs organic wastes from vegetables

that would not be utilized otherwise. It is difficult to predict exactly how rising meat

consumption will impact grain demand, but it‟s safe to say China will need to increase

grain production to supply more animal protein as people‟s diet begin to shift.

       The increase in food demands new methods to increase overall food production.

The amount of arable land in China is limited due the natural geography. Yet each acre

of land must produce more food as the Chinese population increases and a diet shift

naturally occurs as income rises. The Chinese government needs to address this issue of

food production. Increasing imports from foreign sources will only drive up the price of

wheat and make it harder for Chinese citizen to buy food. China needs methods to

produce more grain on its own lands. If the government cannot supply enough food at

reasonable prices then serious social and political problems may arise in a nation of 1.3

billion people.

       Quality of life of farmers is also closely tied to agricultural production. The

wealth disparity between urban and rural area is a glaring social problem the central

government is trying to address. This problem has led to growing social tensions in the
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rural areas, which the government fears could create large violent upheavals. Already the

amount of protests in rural areas has increased significantly over the past decade. Fix

prices by the government to keep food affordable has made farming unprofitable for

many. The government searches for new ways to make farming more economically

attractive for farmers. Reducing need of fertilizer and pesticides can help alleviate this

problem. This reduction in chemicals could increase the income of farmers significantly.

Increasing the income of farmers will help to alleviate wealth disparity and social

tensions that arise due to the gap in income.

Background on Genetically modified Foods

       Genetically modified foods are organisms that had their DNA sequence altered,

usually by addition of a new sequence of DNA which code for a specific protein. The

new sequence of DNA often comes from an different organism which shows promise to

improve the target organism. The new protein will alter the biological prosperities of the

organism. In crops the results could be greater resistance towards disease, faster

maturation rate, greater production, more drought resistant, more able to survive in harsh

environmental conditions or greater nutrition content.

       There are significant differences between genetically modified and traditional

hybrid types. Traditional hybrid classes result from years of trial and filter to isolate

desired traits by crossing two plants of the same or related species. Crossing plants can

increase the strength of desired traits or putting multiple desired traits into one plant.
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This process is slow and somewhat random in result. Genetically modified crops have

desired traits artificially placed inside them precisely. The key difference between

genetically modified crops and hybrid strains comes from the type of trait that can be

added. Hybrid plants usually can only obtain traits already existing in the same species..

Genetically modified organism can obtain traits from unrelated species. Wheat can be

engineered to express proteins normally seen in mold that helps it fight off bacterial

infections. Vitamin-A producing genes from carrots can be inserted into rice DNA to

create a rice strain which produces vitamin A. This kind of gene insertion greatly

increases the potential of modifying an organism‟s properties. This potential also creates


       As with any new food technology, safety becomes a top concern. Many are

unconvinced by how safe GM foods are. Novel proteins in transgenic foods could create

health complications such as allergies. It‟s difficult to predict exactly what new proteins

in an organism will do to its biochemistry. Though health complications have been very

rare, past incidences of GM food triggering an allergic reaction raises concern in many

about the safety of GMs. Environmental issues are of concern as well.

       Many environmental groups fear that GM crops can cross breed with wild plant

varieties to create plants that will harm the natural ecosystem. Often the new proteins

which give crops desired traits could be passed to other plants which create a so-called

“superweed”. These superweeds could disrupt the natural ecological balance. People are
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not allowed to bring foreign plants and animals to a specific country without permission

for the same reason.

       The key to these issues is regulation. Careful testing and screening of new

genetically modified foods will put the risk of GM foods below other unmodified foods.

Clear labeling and carefully designed planting will prevent the GM foods from wrecking

a havoc on the local ecosystem. The concerns of GM foods have to be addressed with

government action. Science and technology can only provide tools for utilizing GM,

ultimate control remain the hands of the government that sponsors it.

GM in China

       The Chinese government invests heavily into GM research. The challenges

facing the Chinese government with regard to the future of food demand and land use

will require technological advancement to increase overall crop production. GM crops

seem to offer a real practical solution to many of China‟s agricultural problems. The

Chinese government expenditures on biotechnology research makes up around 50% of

the global spending. The Chinese government planned to increase the budget for

biotechnology research by 400% from 2002 to 2005(2) Heavy investment into

biotechnology research has produced great progress in its advancement.

        Chinese government has many GM crops in testing phase. By the beginning of

2002, 45 GM plants were given approval for field trials(2). Most of these plants are not
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major crops. There currently six GM crops with commercial licenses. Two of which are

for worm-resistant cotton, two for slow ripening, disease resistant tomatoes and one

license each for sweet peppers and petunias.

       The worm-resistant cotton have yield good results in commercial testing. Farmers

who planted this new cotton used much less pesticide as a result of the genetic

modification. Pesticide use dropped by about 110 pounds a year.(6) A reduction of

pesticide means less environmental damage and chemical pollution due to runoffs. The

reduction of pesticide resulted in a 28% cost reduction for the farmers, meaning a savings

of more than $500 a year(6). This means more disposable income for the farmers.

Farmers planting the new GM cotton also reported health complaints from the use of

pesticide 50% less compared to farmers planting traditional cotton. Less health

complaints also means less health spending, adding more to the disposable income of the

farmers. The central government likes the benefits the GM cotton brings to the farmers.

More GM crops like this one will increase the income of farmers, make agriculture more

economically attractive and lessen the income gap between urban and rural residents.

Good example of how GM can benefit the farmers gives incentives for the government to

approve more GM strains for major staple crops.

       The Chinese government is in the process of evaluating a new GM rice strain.

The rice strain is similar to the cotton strain mentioned earlier. Genetic modification has

given the rice stronger resistance to worms that naturally feed on the stem and leaves.

This rice strain now requires much less pesticide. According to a recent study published
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in Science by Chinese and American scientist shows promising results from field tests of

the new GM rice strain. Farmers turned out to use 80% less pesticide while increasing

overall production by 10%(6). Similar to the cotton strain, a reduction in pesticide use

has also reduced the number of health complaints by the farmers. The Chinese

government is under great pressure to approve of this new strain of rice as it offers a step

closer towards greater productivity of food on the same plot of land.

       Approving GM rice for commercial production will set a precedent. It will be the

first major staple food approved for genetic modification. If the rice is approved as

expected, then it would open doors to other genetically modified foods. Previous genetic

modifications have been mostly on vegetables and crops meant for animal feed.

Production numbers of these vegetables pales in comparison to major staple crops for

direct human consumption such as rice and wheat. Popular genetically modified rice

could be planted and harvested on a massive scale. This rice strain could potentially

become the new food staple for millions or even billions of people. Because of the

potential mass effect of the new rice, many groups are concerned with issues over safety

regulation and environmental impact.

       Greenpeace has consistently held a negative view of genetically modified foods.

It warns about the new rice strain pending approval(4). A recent undercover operation

carried out by Greenpeace discovered many government seed depots have been already

selling the genetically modified rice even though it has not been approved yet(5). The

seeds have been sold through out many southern provinces in China. It claims that the
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genetically modified seeds have been labeled as merely “anti-bug” seeds. The

government disputes that it approved the sale of these seeds for human consumption.

Either way, it appears that the Chinese government experiences difficulty controlling

seed distribution.

       The genetically modified rice case highlights many important issues in China‟s

relations with genetically modified crops. China invested heavily into biotechnology,

especially in agriculture. The efforts have established China as a leader in biotechnology

research and a major player in agricultural biotechnology. The scientific foundation

needed for further research seems solid as the Chinese central government increases

spending on development. The overall technological advancement yields promising

results. The rice strain waiting approval is a result of years of research and government

support. It demonstrates that China can produce new strains of GM crops.

       The increase in rice production and lowering of pesticide will bring real benefits

to the farmers themselves. Increasing production while lowering costs of all rice farmers

could mean greatly increase the income of many rural residents. As stressed before, this

could alleviate the income gap between rural and urban residents. Because rice

plantations is so abundant in China, any modest increase in income for each family would

be amplified by the millions. The possible social and economic implications can not be

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       Government regulation is the key to proper development of genetically modified

foods in China. Government sponsorship of biotechnology research means it has the sole

power and responsibility to regulate GM crops, ensure safety and prevent environmental

damage. The government also must take on the role of education. As a result of the

historical events described earlier, most of the China‟s farm lands are in the hands of

small families harvesting for government contracts. Most of the families are not well

educated and lack basic understanding of the science behind genetically modified crops.

The government will have to educate these farmers on what GM crops are, how to best

use them, and how to lessen environmental impact.

       But as seen from the illegal sales of GM rice in China, government actions needs

improvement. Since the reforms in 1978, China‟s corruption has increased along with its

economic progress. Historically it‟s been a cat & mice game between the central

government and the provincial leaders. Provincial governments often disregard or alter

orders from the central government. Local leaders often take advantage of economic

opportunities whenever they can to benefit their personal accounts at the expenses of the

people. The disparity between central orders and local actions makes it difficult for

China‟s top leaders to implement many policies. Genetically modified rice is sponsored

by the central government and part of the central policy. The seed must be distributed to

local governments and sold to the farmers individually for their benefit. There is no

corporation wholesale. Genetically modified rice exemplifies cooperation needed

between the central government and the local government. As long as local government
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do not comply with the central government‟s policy and decisions, incidents of illegal

sales of GM seeds will continue.

       Genetically modified crops needs close government regulation. The crops

themselves have demonstrated great potential. The real problem here is how the

government regulate and distribute the seeds. Issues of corruption, rule of law and

economic disparity will affect the new seeds affect the farmers who need them the most.

These problems are prominent through out China. How to manage these basic problems

will determine well smoothly GM crops will integrate into the Chinese agricultural


       By the will of the central government, GM crops will continue to flourish in

China. The central government has through its full weight behind the development of

GM crops. This force alone will be enough to overcome all opposition to GM, whether it

be Greenpeace, private industry or minor international protests. The Chinese government

sees food security as a top priority that must be addressed. GM offers a technological

solution to how to supply enough food for the a growing population of 1.3 billion people.

       The future of GM crops is bright in China. It offers vastly untapped source of

technological advancement to satisfy a desperate need for China. How well this will

unfold depends on the central government‟s policy and local government‟s

implementation of those policies.
          Xiao Ben Wang

Chart 1
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Diets and Grain Demand
                    Grain              Food       Animal       Plant
                  Equivalent          Energy      Protein     Protein
                       kg               kJ         gram        gram
                    per year          per day     per day     per day
Vegetarian                   475           10.0         8.6       66.7

Moderate                     875           10.0        31.2       50.0

Affluent                   1,530           11.5        63.2       28.9
Source: Luyten / Qinghua / deVries, 1996

Chart 2
Xiao Ben Wang
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Chart 3

1. Heilig, G. Can China feed itself?
The International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis

2. Kirby, A. Crops find Friends in China BBC News online.

3. Pease, R. GM rice praised in Chinese study BBC News online

4. Sales of GM rice spread through out China
Global News Wire - Asia Africa Intelligence Wire, June 14, 2005

5. Barboza, D. Genetically suspect rice in China. New York Times, April 18, 2005

6. Bezlova, Antoaneta, China looks to GM rice for next „Great Leap Forward‟
IPS-Inter Press Service/Global Information Network, May 24, 2005.
                                                                              Xiao Ben Wang

Data - Percent Changes in China's Food Balan
Changes in China's Food Balance between 1964-66 and 1994-96 (in %) /*
                                    Domestic Supply                         Domestic Utilization                 P
                            Pro-            Stock                                Pro-         Other      per
        Products           duction Imports Changes Exports Total   Feed    Seed cessing Waste Uses Food Yea
Cereals                       170    207      -394    190    176    786       5   6,461    198      -2    113    2
                 Wheat        337     63    82,450    752    284    257      20            197    711     328    15
           Rice (milled)      105    953    42,967     -48   112   1,582      2   1,151    107    -100    111    2
                   Maize      350   2,734      -91   1,549   383    969      45 12,425     604     -20      -2   -4
               Other /1       -22    621      -172   2,683   -15    248     -59 14,392     -23 11,400      -65   -7
Starchy Roots /2               64   6,670             742     66    266      57     945    58    1,486      -1   -4
Sugarcrops /3                 265             -100    100    255 10,046             179                    -16   -3
Sweeteners /4                 182    235      -109     -25   351                                  638     350    17
Pulses /5                     -45    595       -74    870    -55    234     -63            -45             -73   -8
Tree nuts                     175                     244    195                           50             198    10
Oilcrops /6                   177   1,461     -250     88    199    518      20     268    207     89      77
Vegetable Oils /7             314 11,413      -100    672    501                                  682     439    23
Vegetables /8                 383 16,000              993    379    301                    433            376    18
Fruit (excl. wine) /9         520   1,442     -100     67    555    260           -6,345   485            551    29
Stimulants /10                440    438      -150    263    542                           500            538    30
Spices /11                    275   1,200            2,517   161                           133            161    10
Alcoholic Bev. /12          2,333                    3,629 2,340                                 5,100 2,335 1,36
Meat /13                      628             -100    529    636      0             550           200     636    33
        Pig Meat (Pork)       515             -100    265    523                    500           200     523    27
           Poultry Meat     1,020                    7,350 1,019                                         1,018   54
                   Other    1,385                    4,375 1,378      0                                  1,384   86
Offal                         625                      -14   642    511                           260     649    32
Animal Fats /14               413    874              200    457    500                           633     420    20
Milk (excl. butter)           383   2,284            1,138   423    345                    411            432    22
Eggs                          947                      -35   980            851            939    950     987    54
Fish, Seafood /15             630 34,389      -100   2,007   790 28,983                           -100    593    31
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     Freshwater Fish   1,143          259 1,174                            1,174   64
Other Fish & Seafood    466 34,258   2,712   668 28,983                     407    20
Other Aquatic P. /16   1,058                                               1,052   58
Grand Total
Vegetable Products
Animal Products

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Description: GM-&-Chinese-Agriculture