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GMOs Key Issue in Sino-US Trade
The dispute over genetically modified organisms (GMOs) could turn out to be a time bomb in Sino-US trade ties if the two countries fail to solve it properly through negotiations.

The Chinese agriculture ministry issued two provisions in January stipulating that starting March 20, all imports of GMOs must have a safety certificate from the State Council and must be labelled as genetically modified before they are sold in China, which is the fifth largest export market for US agricultural products.

The requirement for labelling GMOs has upset some major GMO-producing countries, particularly the United States.

Shortly after the new rule was enacted, some accused China of trade protectionism under the banner of food safety.

Some American exporters of bioengineered food have even asked their government to sue China at the World Trade Organization, adding strain to bilateral trade relations.

The acreage of GMOs in the world have surged from 1.7 million hectares in 1996 to 50 million hectares at the end of last year following the rapid progress of biotechnology.

GMOs are created when scientists change the gene information of many organisms to get superior strains such as pest-resistant corns and anti-freezing tomatoes. GMOs mainly grow in the United States, Canada and Argentina.

Bioengineered organisms usually have a much higher yield than traditional strains but require less cost and pesticides which pollute food and the environment.

Despite the obvious advantages of bioengineered foods however, some scientists warn that artificially changing the nature of organisms may produce unforeseeable danger.

A widespread worry is that some genetically modified foods may contain poisonous elements given that scientists cannot perfectly control the results of gene modification.

Bioengineered foods are also suspected to have the potential of causing allergies and mutating some inner-body bacterium into drug-resistant ones.

GMOs also usually have strong fertility growth and can easily cross-breed with traditional species and contaminate "pure" genes. The massive production and reproduction of GMOs could also break the ecological balance.

So far there is no sufficient proof to second these worries, but neither is there evidence to deny them completely.

Before a final conclusion on GMO safety is reached, it is important and reasonable to keep effective administration of the production and sale of GMOs.

Many countries have rules that the production of bioengineered foods must have the approval of agricultural departments and go through certain safety assessment procedures.

Labelling GMO products is also a minimum precaution. If GMO producers are not obligated to do so, consumers will unknowingly become their test subjects.

Many regions such as Japan, Russia, South Korea and the European Union require GMO producers to remind consumers of the special nature of their products with conspicuous marks on packages.

More than 160 countries and regions, including China, have signed the 2000 Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, which has a labelling requirement for GMOs.

In China, GMOs have reached the daily lives of families. More than half of the bean oil in China contains genetically modified ingredients. China imports large amounts of bioengineered foods every year although it does not grow GMOs massively.

China's science and agriculture departments have created a series of rules concerning the regulation and reporting of GMOs to protect the safety of domestic consumers and guarantee their right to information.

However, strict biosafety measures often ignite trade frictions and therefore invite protests from GMO-producing countries.

In fact, some economic considerations are involved in the GMO labelling rules of some countries because cheap GMO imports have flooded their local food industry.

GMO-exporting countries lashed out at the labelling system calling it protectionism.

US Trade Representative Robert Zoellick said in February, after failed GMO negotiations with EU trade officials, that the United States is very likely to sue the EU according to the WTO dispute settlement mechanism.

Coincidentally, China announced new GMO rules at a very sensitive time when the United States is preparing action against the EU. How the dispute between China and the United States will be solved is now a focal point of relations.

It should be emphasized that China's new rules are in line with WTO principles of non-discrimination and transparency.

The new rules apply to GMOs imported from any place outside China. The specific procedures for biosafety certificate applications and the method of labelling are also made clear.

The aim of the labelling system is to help domestic consumers distinguish GMOs and protect their right to choice.

The criticism of many domestic agriculture experts of labelling regulations proves that the rule is by no means created for trade protection purposes. Fortunately, the US Government is still trying to tackle this problem through negotiations with China. It will be a win-win solution if talks can help the two sides diffuse potential clashes.

But the two countries will have to fight an uphill battle before they can see eye to eye with each other given that the GMO issue involves a wide range of aspects including science, the economy, public health, and ethics.

The author is a teacher at the Environmental Law Research Institute of Wuhan University.

(Qin Tianbao, a teacher at the Environmental Law Research Institute of Wuhan University )

(China Daily July 29, 2002)

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