Last month China's Department of Agriculture approved three biosafety certificates for soybean imports. Their decision triggered a heated debate among the Chinese public and media.

China first approved the import of genetically modified soybean in 1995, and back then consumers were unclear as to exactly what constituted genetically modified crops. 18 years on and the same decision that once baffled the public is now being met with outrage. These days the people of China are not only aware of the risks of genetic modification technology but also have a strong desire to participate in government policy making.

And because genetically modified foods can increasingly be found on the market, safety issues surrounding genetically modified grain has become of real and immediate concern to the general public.

Genetic modification technology combines traditional propagation methods while introducing artificial genes that have not originally existed in nature. From development to production, and then to use, genetically modified products gives rise to a number of safety risks in terms of human health and the ecosystem. These problems are known as biosafety hazards.

And what with genetic modification technology being transferred from the laboratory to market in increasingly short periods of time, biosafety has become a critical problem. The global controversy over genetic modification technology and genetically modified products all originate from or involve this question of biosafety.

This makes the approval of biosafety certificates the single most critical stage, as it allows for genetically modified products to be transferred from the laboratory to market. In addition, once this stage has been passed, it is very difficult to take these products off the market should unexpected problems arises.

For this reason, the biosafety issue of genetically modified crops is high on the agenda of the United Nations and other international organisations. It has been explicitly stipulated in writing that any policies which concern genetic modification must first include public opinion during the policy making process.

In 2003 the United Nations put into effect the “The Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety” (abbreviated as “Protocol”). The 23rd article includes the phrase: “public consciousness and participation”. This clearly states the public should enjoy the right to participate in educational activities that relate to genetic modification, as well as have the right to acquire data relating to genetically modified imports.

Furthermore, states who have signed this contract must solicit public opinion in the policy making process. This must be in accordance with each respective law and regulation concerning living modified organisms. Information must be made available to the public and public participation should be protocol. Signatory states must fulfil this international obligation.

In 2005, China became a signatory state of the “The Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety”. However, with regard to its obligation to make information public and allow public participation, the government almost always avoids the important and dwells on the trivial. And has ostensibly failed to make information available to the public and solicit public participation.

Genetic modification technology has been in development for more than 20 years, yet the public has failed to have a clear understanding of this process and only now begun to grapple with the pros and cons, and possible hazards of genetically modified food products. Biosafety is no longer simply the concern of a small number of scientists or government branches. It is now a shared concern among the general public and has become the subject of heated discussion. 

This international obligation ensures the public's right to know and right to participate in the discussion of genetic modification. With regard to these two aspects, the Government urgently needs to take a step forward.

At present, the three varieties of genetically modified soybeans that have acquired a biosafety import certificate cannot yet be grown domestically. Despite this there are still many hidden biosafety issues.

Firstly, genetically modified soybeans will inevitably enter the country’s food chain through soybean oil, soymilk, and animal feed made from soybeans, along with other bean products. Genetically modified soybeans also risk entering the environment during the transportation, loading and unloading process. A wealth of research has proven that genetically modified soybean genes have already entered the environment and contaminated local Chinese soybean strains. China boasts an abundance of genetically diverse varieties of soybean. So this kind of genetic spread and contamination will undoubtedly have a negative effect on indigenous soybean varieties.

As more and more biosafety certificates are issued and the number of genetically modified soybean imports increase on a daily basis, how to protect natural varieties of this valuable crop and guard against genetic contamination is a question that cannot be neglected. The Government must rapidly take steps to renew and improve its biosafety evaluation and supervisory system. At the same time, the public must also be given the right to supervise these laws and regulations and decide whether or not they are being properly implemented. This is not only to protect the health and safety of the public but also to protect the Chinese nation’s wealth of indigenous plant species. 

Image © Greenpeace / Daniel Beltrá