Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) are once again in the news. On November 19, 2015, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced that a genetically modified animal, a breed of fast maturing salmon, had been approved for human consumption for the first time, sparking an uproar. China may be separated from the U.S. by the Pacific Ocean, but that hasn’t insulated it from GMO controversies. As reported by the Peoples Food Sovereignty Forum (11/17 and 11/23) and GMO Watch (11/16), the Beijing Third People’s Intermediate Court is hearing a case brought by three residents against the Ministry of Agriculture (MoA). These hearings lasted for three hours, and were attended by the plaintiffs, the Ministry and a third party: Monsanto Far East Ltd. The case received widespread media coverage when it was filed, but the actual hearing occasioned little notice. In the two years since a campaign to demand greater openness from the Ministry of Agriculture, why have these three Beijing residents and their volunteer lawyers focused on Monsanto, a company primarily known for its pesticides and GMO seeds? Why did they file suit against the Ministry of Agriculture? With administrative litigation becoming increasingly common, what is special about this case’s connection to GMOs? Groundbreaking put these questions to Yan Hairong, a professor in the Department of Applied Social Sciences at Hong Kong Polytechnic University and a volunteer with People’s Food Sovereignty Network.
Groundbreaking: Professor Yan, would you be able to give us some context for this case? How is Monsanto implicated? What exactly is the glyphosate found in Monsanto’s Roundup? What effect can it have on producers and consumers?
Yan Hairong: This is a major case, because it touches on issues such as the health and safety of 1.3 billion people, the function of government and the interests of trans-national capital, as well as China’s role as the world’s factory for glyphosate. The outcome of this case will be felt around the globe.
Monsanto is a trans-national agro-biotech corporation, well known for its GMO seeds, which account for 26% of the world’s seed market, making it the “Big Mac” of the seed industry. Before achieving dominance in the GMO seed market, Monsanto primarily researched and developed pesticides, and had held a patent on glyphosate from the 1970s to 2000, using the compound in its flagship product, “Roundup.” Monsanto introduced Roundup to the Chinese market in 1988, at which time it presented the Ministry of Agriculture with a toxicology report on pesticides. The crux of this case is whether or not the MoA will release this report to the Chinese public and respect the public’s right to know on this matter.
Since Monsanto introduced Roundup to the Chinese market, China has become the world’s leading producer of glyphosate. Monsanto’s patent on the compound expired in 2000, and it is currently used in more than 130 countries, not just for agriculture, but also in forests, city parks and more. In March of this year, the World Health Organization (WHO) released a warning detailing the danger glyphosate poses to the public. 17 experts from 11 countries evaluated glyphosate’s carcinogenicity, with the resulting International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) report reclassifying the compound as a probable carcinogen. The report stressed that the use of glyphosate in herbicides was likely to increase rapidly along with the proliferation of Monsanto’s glyphosate resistant GMOs such as corn and soybeans.
As of this June, 292 independent scientists from 46 countries have signed the “Independent Scientists Manifesto on Glyphosate,” declaring that prolonged contact with glyphosate based herbicides is not only linked to cancer, but also to birth defects, infertility, impotence, miscarriages, and nerve damage. These scientists call on governments to ban glyphosate. According to a research report released by the NGO Friends of the Earth, glyphosate was found in the urinalysis results of 44% of test subjects in 18 European countries (https://www.foeeurope.org/sites/default/files/press_releases/foee_1_introducing_glyphosate.pdf). And in the United States, where GMO plants are common, urinalysis revealed that American women have more than ten times the quantity of glyphosate in their system as European women! Not to mention tests run on the breast milk of American mothers have shown levels of glyphosate between 760 and 1600 times the amount considered safe to drink in Europe!
Faced with the hazards posed by glyphosate-based herbicides, this year has seen one country after another take action, with citizens working unceasingly to see glyphosate banned. For example, in 2014 the Dutch parliament voted to end the sales of glyphosate-based herbicides to private individuals, but due to pressure from Monsanto the ban had still not been expanded to agriculture. In May of 2015 the Dutch parliament finally agreed to ban the use of glyphosate by the end of the year.
Within China there are currently several ways glyphosate can negatively impact public health. The first comes from the mass production of the compound. In 2013 China produced 70% of the world’s supply, or about 500,000 metric tons. In 2014, it accounted for 62.5% of the world’s production, or about 450,000 metric tons (http://www.aes.org.cn/html/2015/11/20151106.htm).
The second risk factor is the widespread use of glyphosate within China, not only as an herbicide, but also as a desiccant on agricultural products. Additionally, besides its use on farms, glyphosate is also used in forestry and to maintain public parks.
The third risk factor comes from glyphosate’s residual presence on imported soybeans and corn. China imports more than 80 million metric tons of soybeans, the majority of which are glyphosate resistant GMO soybeans on which the compound has been used. Xinhua itself has commented on the problem, stating “GMO soybeans that retain glyphosate pose a serious risk to human health” (http://news.xinhuanet.com/world/2013-08/07/c_125130249.htm).
Groundbreaking: The Ministry of Agriculture was represented at trial by a department head, who revealed a lot of new information. Departing from the Ministry’s administrative reconsideration decision, which argued that “glyphosate was minimally or slightly toxic,” this Ministry department head said Roundup and glyphosate is indeed toxic, and as a result they will be required to write a warning on its packaging. However, the lawyer for the Ministry maintained, “the two risks were minimal. Pesticides have an impact on the environment, but they also kill weeds, and so are beneficial to humanity. The two sides must be weighed against each other. At the present point in time, Monsanto has been producing pesticides for years, and [its expertise] should not be rejected lightly.” Professor Yan, how would you respond to this?
Yan Hairong: This case is about fighting for the public’s right to know. These three Beijing residents want the court to force the Ministry to release Monsanto’s report, and the Ministry wants to block its release. Their lawyer’s defense of “Roundup” raises several questions.
First, the plaintiffs’ goals are quite straightforward: they want open access to information. At no point did they declare their intention to oppose the report, or to oppose the use of Roundup. That the Ministry’s lawyer would feel the need to defend Roundup speaks volumes to its concerns: that the release of this report will lead to protests against its use. Which only makes the public’s desire for openness even more critical.
Second, the Ministry’s representative argued it is only required to consider releasing the report if it would have a “significant impact.” Naturally the question arises: who decides what qualifies as a “significant impact?” The Ministry’s Administrative Reconsideration Decision Letter states “information related to trade secrets will not be released; an individual’s private information may be released if it would have a significant impact on the public, as defined by an administrative body.” China produces glyphosate for the world. It is currently being used in our fields, our mountains, and our forests. We import and consume GMO soybeans that contain residual glyphosate. How can something that impacts the health and safety of 1.3 billion people not count as “significant?” The people can’t help but ask questions of the Ministry. What could be more significant than the health and wellbeing of the public? How can the Ministry not place the protection of said health and wellbeing above all else? And if they don’t, how can they maintain the confidence of the people?
Groundbreaking: It seems like the questions here are whether or not the toxicology report counts as a trade secret, and whether or not its contents will have a significant impact on the public interest. How would you answer these questions? A letter sent by Monsanto to the Ministry of Agriculture [outlining their position] was given the utmost consideration by the Ministry, and submitted into evidence. How can Monsanto have so much influence on the proceedings? Is this an example of the “corporate dictatorship” you discussed in your earlier interview with Vandana Shiva?
Yan Hairong: According to court reports, the Ministry’s representative leaned on a particular legal clause designed to protect trade secrets. He said, “if we look at Clause 23, it sets forth clear guidelines for questions of balancing the need for trade secrets and the public interest. In those cases, the protection of trade secrets comes first.” The plaintiffs are arguing that this is, practically speaking, either a woeful misreading of the law, or else a fabrication. According to the Regulations on Government Information Releases, the relevant clause reads as follows: “Clause 23: If the administrative body believes that the release of government records would involve the release of trade secrets or private information that might damage the legitimate interests of a third party, then they should contact the third party in writing, and request their input. If the third party does not agree to the release, it may not be released. However, if the administrative body believes that a failure to release the information would have a significant impact on the public interest, then it should release the information and inform the third party in writing as to the contents of the release and the body’s reasons for doing so.” When it comes to the release of information that could have a significant impact on the public interest, nowhere does it say that “trade secrets” must be taken into account, much less that the protection of trade secrets should take precedence. On the contrary, it clearly states the information should be released. In such cases there is no reason to solicit the input from a third party, said party need only be informed.
From this it is quite clear that the spirit of the law places the emphasis on the “public interest,” and the Ministry representative’s claim that in those cases where we must balance the need to protect trade secrets and the public interest ”the protection of trade secrets comes first” is not at all in keeping with the law’s spirit. So you could say it’s a fabrication.
Put another way, the government’s regulations mandate the release of the Monsanto report, but the Ministry’s representatives are only too willing to set that mandate aside in favor of Monsanto’s request to deny access. The departments in charge here are thus siding with trans-national capital. This decision embodies the authority of trans-national capital as opposed to the authority of government. It is a trans-national capitalist dictatorship as opposed to a people’s dictatorship.
The ministry may also be afraid of US government’s sanction. Under the US Trade Act of 1974, provision special 301 requires the Office of the United States Trade Representative to identify priority foreign countries that fail to protect US intellectual property rights, including trade secrets. China has been a top priority country on the watch list. US trade representatives have carried out investigations and threatened to impose sanctions on China.[i]
Groundbreaking: On November 19, 2015, the United States FDA announced it had approved a genetically modified animal for human consumption for the first time. The announcement caused a public uproar. What kind of impact do you think this will have on China? Will it increase the rate at which GMO foods other than soybeans and corn are legalized here?
Yan Hairong: I think it’s worth noting that the FDA does not allow these genetically modified salmon to be raised in the US, nor does it allow them to be grown in other countries for the American market. The raising of genetically modified salmon has only been approved in specially designated pools in Canada and Panama. And while genetically modified salmon has been approved for human consumption in the U.S., many American consumers have opposed this approval. The New York Times recently reported that most large retail outlets have openly stated they will not sell genetically modified salmon. So the problem is, if the U.S. is not a viable market for these salmon, where will they be sold? Europe has already clearly rejected GMO agriculture, making genetically modified salmon even less likely to be approved there. With the European and American public unwilling to buy it, the New York Times has reported that the target markets for the salmon include Canada, Argentina, Brazil and China, with some analysts believing that the primary target is China.
A look at online public opinion reveals that the Chinese public has no interest in purchasing GMO products, but key government departments are currently actively engaged in a highly vigorous pop-science pro-GMO public relations campaign targeted at media professionals and the public, and backed by state funds. The relevant departments within China are already quite in a tizzy over the excess production of GMOs by the US, and an excess of genetically modified salmon may make them even antsier. These departments would do better to spend more time worrying about the safety and healthfulness of food consumed by the Chinese public, and less time reassuring the representatives of transnational companies.
The situation is quite grim. In each of the past two years the U.S. Department of Agriculture has released the “China: Agricultural Biotechnology Annual,” the 2014 edition of which clearly states “the United States has continued to press China to adhere to a science-based policy on biotechnology approvals” (http://gain.fas.usda.gov/Recent GAIN Publications/Agricultural Biotechnology Annual_Beijing_China - Peoples Republic of_12-31-2014.pdf). In line with this, in 2015 the Chinese Ministry of Agriculture announced that it would expand the “not for consumption,” “for indirect consumption,” and “consumable” categories to GMOs.
In the U.S., so-called “science-based” procedures functionally mean “corporate-based.” Under President Obama, the U.S. government has ignored popular opposition to GMOs, and in 2013 it passed H.R. 933, or as it is popularly known, the “Monsanto Protection Act.” This act allows Monsanto to continue selling its products, even in the face of public health questions or litigation.
Turning back to China and this particular case, if the Chinese government wishes to make “science-based” decisions, and not corporate-based ones, then the relevant departments should allow the public access to all available data, and especially research and management data related to the risks involved.
Groundbreaking: In 2014, Xi Jinping was quoted in “A Selection of Important Documents from the 18th National Congress” as saying the following about GMOs: “I want to emphasize two aspects, one is guaranteeing safety and the second is indigenous innovation…the research and innovation shall be bold, so we can take the commanding heights in biotechnology, and not let large foreign companies dominate the agricultural biotechnology market.”[ii] You yourself are an activist, and on numerous occasions you have said “the Chinese people should set their own tables (中国人的餐桌中国人做主)! We must ensure the people’s food sovereignty!” What advice would you give to young people who want to know more about GMOs and the public interest?
Yan Hairong: They should spend more time reading the People’s Food Sovereignty website! I’m joking, of course, but not entirely. The number of sides in this debate may give people the impression that each side has an equal ability to express their opinion, but practically that’s not the case. It’s quite clear that each side’s resources and ability to be heard is unequal.
I support research in genetic science. The cellular biologist Hou Yingchun has noted, “humanity’s genetic composition consists of about 30,000 structural genes (earlier believed to be about 100,000). In turn, these code (or command production of) hundreds of thousands of proteins. Of these hundreds of thousands of proteins, we’ve currently named less than ten thousand, and completely understand the function (what they do or what happens when they change or are altered) of even fewer. And when you have this many proteins in a cell, comprising a cellular community, they form an exceedingly complicated network to support life. And we’re nowhere close to truly understanding this network’s complexity! (http://www.shiwuzq.com/food/knowledge/gm/20150331/1710.html). Only by acknowledging the deficiencies and limitations of our current understanding can we continue to move forward, or dare to raise questions. We should support science-based research, but we shouldn’t rush to put these advances to use, with our eyes only on short-term profit. I believe environmental safety and personal safety are vastly more important.
Unfortunately, in our current circumstances science has been hijacked by a kind of “pseudo-science,” as technologies of uncertain safety have become tools of capital. As noted in an essay recently published by the People’s Food Sovereignty site, true science should recognize the limitations of it’s conclusions, and allow for doubts and challenges to authority. In “pseudo-science” or “scientism,” on the other hand, “science” must be worshipped. Once something or someone has been labeled as “scientific,” they become a kind of “science spokesman” or an “oracle of truth.” Pseudo-science uses the label “scientific” to replace, suppress and mock the search for facts, truth and true scientific understanding (http://www.shiwuzq.com/food/rights/system/2015/1123/2868.html).
Behind this shift, which has monopolized our conceptions of science, lies power and capital, or as it is sometimes called, the “political-academic-corporate-media axis.” Trans-national capital, of the kind represented by Monsanto, is at the vanguard of a shift towards short-term profit, which is why it has aroused the opposition and protest of people around the world. They want to hold Monsanto to account for the impact it has had on public and environmental health. China would do well to study their efforts. I hope those young people interested in the public good will dare to study the issues for themselves, to form their own judgments, and to perfect their own analyses of each side’s argument, all on the basis of the public good, and I hope they will add their voices to the discussion
Translated from the original interview with Groundbreaking in Chinese http://www.groundbreaking.cn/shehui/guoji/4635.html
[ii] Taken from the translation in the Agricultural Biotechnology Annual for the People’s Republic of China.