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Chinese policy on GMOs exhibits a double-standard

Sign in corridor of Ministry of Education, Beijing China
I-wan Chen

Officials at the Chinese Ministry of Education office shun genetically modified organisms (GMOs) for themselves, yet allow them to be served to the schoolchildren for whom they are responsible.

The sign in the accompanying photo hangs in the corridor of the Ministry of Education building in Beijing. It begins, “Our Canteen Does Not Use Food Containing GM Ingredients.” It further states, “The issue of whether GM food is harmful to human health is currently without consensus within academia. GM food has only appeared [in China] for a short period making it very difficult at present to appropriately assess it's impact on long-term safety. Further research and longer time is required for verification. To eliminate the concerns of diners, and to assure the safety and health of our staff members, our Ministry of Education Office Canteen temporarily will not use food oil containing GM ingredients and GM food materials. Please enjoy your food without any such concern.”

At first glance this would seem to be great news. Until you know the rest of the story.

August 2006: Hangzhou Municipal Education Bureau led in issuing the instruction to “investigate middle schools, primary schools, and kindergartens within the jurisdiction. If they are using GM food oil, then immediately cease.”

May 6, 2010: Wulumuqi Education Bureau, the Health Bureau and the Food & Drugs Administration Bureau jointly issued a document requesting that the canteens of all middle and primary schools “forbid the purchase of GM food oil.”

December 2010: It was revealed that the kindergarten of the Ministry of Agriculture “uses non-GM food oil.”

February 21, 2011: Shandong Province Anqiu Education Bureau and the Food & Drug Administration Bureau issued an instruction document requesting the canteens of all schools “forbid purchasing GM food oil.”

August 2011: Qingdao Food & Drug Administration Bureau publicly announced that “school canteens, student food processing and supply companies are requested to use non-GM food oil.”

Summary to date: Education bureaus in three Chinese provinces, Hangzhou, Wulumuqi, and Shangdong, all had issued instruction documents to ban canteens of schools in their regions from purchasing GM food oil and one (Qingdao) had made a request. The Ministry of Agriculture does not use GM oil products in their kindergarten.

September 28, 2011: Ministry of Agriculture office issued an “official letter” to the Ministry of Education office requesting them to take measures to stop the trend of local education bureaus banning the purchase of GM food in the canteens of schools in their regions. When citizens of Beijing applied to the Ministry of Agriculture requesting publication of this letter, the Ministry of Agriculture responded (August 2012) that the letter is “confidential” and refused to make it public.

October 10, 2011: Beijing Municipal Education Committee writes a letter responding to the Ministry of Agriculture admitting that the Ministry of Education lacks authority over the matter. Because it is legal to sell and purchase GM food, “the municipal education commission is not a department in charge of food and has no right to forbid schools and nutrition meal processing enterprises to use GM soybean oil." They promised to meet with the offending parties and correct their mistake.

December 28, 2011: Parents in Beijing submitted a letter of protest to the Beijing Municipal Food Safety Office stating in part, “Youth and childhood is the critical growth period of physical development. Food consumption, besides supplying energy and nutrition for physical and mental activities, is mainly consumed to supply nutrition for physical development. Thus, food safety has an essential and significant difference for youngsters and children compared with adults."

January 9, 2011: Parents in Beijing invited experts and media to attend the “Symposium on Lunch Meal Food Safety for Students in Beijing.” Discussions were held on the safety of the Lanqing Brazilian GM soybean oil. They requested the Ministry of Education to "learn from the example established by the kindergarten of the Ministry of Agriculture and completely remove the above mentioned GM soybean oil and other GM ingredients from lunch meals provided to middle and primary school students in Beijing, enabling students at all schools, like the children at the kindergarten of the Ministry of Agriculture, to enjoy safe lunch meals every day without concern from their parents!"

March 12, 2012: Representatives of parents visited the Ministry of Education to report their concerns to the leaders of the Development Deptartnemt of the ministry. They requested that GM oil be banned from the canteens of universities, middle schools and primary schools, but were informed that “difficulty exists.”

They are still serving GM food in school cafeterias in China. Bans on GM food in school cafeterias were blocked by the Chinese Minsitry of Agriculture, which does not serve GM food in it's own kindergarten. And now the Chinese Ministry of Education proudly proclaims that they do not serve GM food in their office canteen so that we can enjoy eating there without concern. Still, they are ahead of us here in the United States.

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