China’s GMO Problem and How It Could Affect You

( - Congratulations! You have heeded the words of your vegan friends and other dairy milk objectors and started drinking soy milk. The anti-dairy milk rhetoric includes lines like, “Would you drink the breast milk of your neighbor?” and “A cow’s milk is meant to turn a 500-pound calf into a 1,000-pound cow in two months. It’ll make you fat!” Or something like that.

They are successfully convincing millions of Americans to ditch the dairy milk and start pouring a milk alternative on their cereal. By itself, this news is fantastic. Plant-based milk products have less calories, zero cholesterol, and most are fortified with vitamins and minerals to have a nutritional profile similar to, or better than milk.

However, there are some recent reports coming out of China that are somewhat disturbing. They reveal the truth about what might really be lurking in your “organic” soy products. Some of their “non-GMO” soybean crop has been found to contain some GMOs. These mystery GMO beans could find their way into your soymilk or tofu if it is produced in China or uses raw materials from China.

Most plant-based milk also claims to be organic. Informed consumers know that the “organic” label means more than just, “grown without pesticides.” “Organic” also means that the plant grew from a non-GMO seed. People know that they don’t want GMO, but many don’t know exactly what GMOs are.

GMO stands for “Genetically Modified Organism.” They are seeds that are “enhanced” in a lab to have more favorable characteristics. For example, scientists can take a seed that only grows in hot climates and adjust its genes so that it can thrive in a cold area. Another type of GMO is herbicide resistant. The scientists adjust the genes in the seed so that weed killer with glyphosate can be sprayed all over the crops to kill the weeds and not hurt the GMO plant. This is a very basic explanation of genetically modified organisms, if you want a more in depth description, read this.

The Heilongjiang Province is a major producer of Chinese soybeans and in 2013 and ‘14, GMO beans were found in harvested crops. The Global Times reported that “farmers know that they are planting GMO crops, and that they do it to pursue greater yields and higher profits. But they said many farmers didn’t realize that this is illegal.” How can they not know? The laws surrounding GMO crops can be slightly murky and some of the farmers may not understand exactly what the seeds are. They just know that these American seeds are easy to grow.

Some sources report a “ban on GMOs” in China, but that is not exactly true. Some GMO crops are approved in China such as tomatoes, cotton, corn, and petunias; but the soybean is not on this list—yet. There are some not-so-subtle hints that China may be leaning towards allowing more GMO crops in the future.

In 2013, President Xi Jinping said in a speech about agricultural policy, that food security for a growing population was a big concern and that China must “occupy the commanding heights of transgenic technology” (some people refer to GMOs as “transgengenic” because the science involves the transfer of genes). Other sources suggest that China plans to “proceed cautiously” into the world of GMOs because the Chinese people are still leery of the genetically modified plants. Nonetheless, they are still proceeding towards legalizing growing GMO crops in China.

Growing GMO soybeans is not legal in China, but importing them is. About 80 percent of China’s soybeans are imported GMO beans from the U.S. and Brazil. It’s way cheaper to import the GMO beans than to grow the federally mandated non-GMO beans. Farmers may logically assume that they are acceptable to grow since they are used in processing some foods in China. There are no national restrictions on GMOs, the restrictions are agricultural. This can add to the confusion for farmers.

The agricultural department estimates that about 10 percent of the soybeans grown in the Heilongjiang Province are GMOs. Apparently, the illegal seeds can be purchased online or at farming expos. Theft of seedlings is fairly common in China and has occurred in the U.S. with Chinese nationals being charged with trying to steal GMO corn seeds. Officials have seized some seed packages from the mail, but intercepting every illegal package is impossible.

The long-term effects of GMOs are not known and some people would rather just avoid them. To some others, they pose the immediate dangers of allergic reactions, liver damage, and sterility. GMO foods were introduced in the 1990s and although there is no direct link, chronic health conditions nearly doubled since their introduction, and several other health problems are on the rise. There are several possibilities of what GMOs can do to your health, but most experts agree that they have an unpredictable effect on human health.

The American Academy of Environmental Medicine released a position paper that stated in part that

“Several animal studies indicate serious health risks associated with GM food consumption including infertility, immune dysregulation, accelerated aging, dysregulation of genes associated with cholesterol synthesis, insulin regulation, cell signaling, and protein formation, and changes in the liver, kidney, spleen and gastrointestinal system.”

Now of course animals are not exactly the same as humans, but animal experiments can give scientists a look at how certain biological systems handle GMOs.

Americans trust that products carrying the “organic” label do not contain GMOs and when genetically modified soybeans sneak into their soy milk or tofu, it’s scary. It means that you could unknowingly be subjecting yourself to these health issues. It means that there is no protection from these scientific experiments.

Fortunately, China doesn’t export many of their soybeans or soybean products so it isn’t likely that you’ll ingest them in America. But what does this mean for non-GMO crops around the world? If the GMO crops are so much easier to grow and cost effective, then what incentive do farmers have to keep growing the natural seeds?

If farmers in China are found growing the illegal GMO beans, they could be fined the equivalent of $31,000 USD. But once the fields and equipment are contaminated with GMO pollen and seeds, it is nearly impossible to contain the spread. Soybean is a self-pollinating crop, so pollen drift is not a big concern, but many other crops are susceptible to being pollinated by wind or bees carrying GMO pollen.    

This GMO infiltration of natural soybeans in China may be a fairly small problem, but it may signal a bigger issue. Farmers are abandoning their non-GMO crops for the higher profits they get from the GMO seeds. Until China legalizes and separates the GMO crops, the problem of farmers secretly growing these illegal crops will continue. If genetically-modified crops are grown and labeled as such, consumers can decide if they are willing to take the risk of eating them.

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