The Chinese way of transgenic rice

Are Asians less fearful of genetically modified organisms than Europeans?

By Andrew Leonard

Published January 17, 2009 11:15AM (EST)

Lew Kwan Yew, the former Prime Minister of Singapore, used to justify one-party rule by suggesting "Asian values" supported authoritarian domination. The term "Asian values" was never easy to define and always controversial, but I heard an echo of old debates in a fascinating, and very smart essay on China and transgenic rice by Ron Herring, a professor of political science and political ecology at Cornell University.

Herring argues that Asia and Europe see genetically modified organisms in starkly different contexts. In Europe, messing around with DNA is often seen as a crime against nature -- or as plot by multinational corporations to make all farmers their vassals. Or both.

But it's different in Asia.

The European discourse of playing God does not play well in Asia; it presupposes the God of Genesis, a creator with a plan, a garden, absolute control and a stable equilibrium of species. And in general the Apocalyptic vision of European political activism has not penetrated beyond small numbers of urban professionals in Asia, where grounds of objection to transgenics have to do with consumer preference and resistance to corporate globalization. China is the case that confounds the discourse; not [multi-national corporations], but Chinese scientists have been the drivers of transgenic research and development. China showed how public sector investments in transgenics could target specific problems in agriculture without signing away the farm.

China is moving aggressively to boost biotechnological research, citing the awesome responsibility of ensuring enough food for its huge population. Anyone paying attention to China's melamine adventures and other product quality issues has a reasonable right to be alarmed -- there are a vast number of things that could go wrong.

But it won't be Monsanto's fault. Just as in India and Brazil, where farmers have proved to be arbiters of their own fate in making decisions about what cotton or soybean seeds to plant or pirate, regardless of government regulation or multinational intellectual property control, in China, the men and women wading through the paddies hold the ultimate power.

As in many countries, cultivators in China risk prosecution to grow unauthorized transgenic crops, including Bt rice. They do so because they are impatient with bureaucratic delays and unwilling to pay corporate technology fees...

...Though the EU battles the US and WTO over whether or not transgenic crops should be allowed, the decision will ultimately be made by farmers. It is the agency of people close to the seeds that will settle the question; in China, that decision leans toward transgenic rice, just as it previously did to transgenic cotton. It is hard to conjure the kind of state that could regulate the seed choices of millions of farmers across dozens of crops; but even if such surveillance and control could be imagined, it is hard not to think that there are better things to do.

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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Biotechnology China Globalization How The World Works