Written by Tyler Rooker.
On December 20th close to 600 thousand tons of corn from the US was denied entry to China on the basis that it was genetically-modified with MIR 162, a version of corn that does not have a “security certificate” in China. Last month, 60 thousand tons of the same GM corn was denied entry. As early as 2010, Swiss-based Syngenta has been trying to bring MIR 162 corn to China.
Why is China importing corn, or any other agricultural product for that matter? China has been a nation of farmers since before modernity. That it would need to import agricultural products—namely, rice, corn (and feed), cotton, soybeans—is surely news. The USDA reports that since 2008, China has used “price supports” to subsidize farmers, but its massive food inflation has benefitted American rather than PRC farmers, since the discrepancy between Chinese domestic and global prices for agricultural products means farmers have been arbitraging all the way to the bank. US farmers may be trying to get MIR 162 corn past PRC customs, but PRC farmers are happy to have it to reduce cost and win market share.
China’s citizens have been subject to an onslaught of food safety scandals: 2008 brought infant milk powder, 2010 re-used cooking oil (地沟油) and more recently clenbuterol steroid-lean pork. The idea that government can have any effect on standards and safety of food is in doubt in China.
For the global/Western community, the only comfort in the wake of the GSK (and other big pharma) bribery allegations in China is the idea that China imposes its rule of law haphazardly or only when it benefits China—or the vaguely “encompassing” (not private) interest of China-first enterprises.
For Chinese citizens, it can only be disconcerting that the majority of papayas are GM, and have been for over a decade, despite this only being revealed earlier this month. So GM food is widely spread in China, from insect-resistant rice to cooking oil, from cotton to papaya, yet China’s customs and Ministry of Agriculture (MoA) have rejected the import of MIR 162 corn from the US.
In Chinese, “一朝被蛇咬，十年怕井绳” (if you are bitten once by a snake, you fear ropes for ten years). Infant milk powder, re-used cooking oil and clenbuterol scare the central government and MoA. Strict enforcement of “standards” and “bribery” scares Western corporations. Perhaps this is much ado about nothing?
A Chinese citizen noted to this author: US corporations are buying organic soybeans from Shandong while they sell GM soybeans back to China—how can this not be a Snowden-ian plot? As US agricultural exports to China rise to 7 million tons, accountability for food standards, disclosure to citizens and bureaucratism in “safety certificates” are in flux in thousands of tons of corn.
Tyler Rooker is Lecturer in the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies, University of Nottingham.