China - protecting the homeland of Soya

Feature Story - 2004-06-14
Soya originated in China and has an agricultural history spanning over 5,000 years, but with the advent of genetically engineered (GE) soya all of this is now under serious threat. Through our GE campaign and our Great Cyber Wall we want to make sure that China can safeguard its heritage and one of its major food supplies.

The Great Wall kept out foreign invaders, our virtual wall will keep out GE

Although the Chinese government does not currently allow genetically modified soya beans to be grown in China, there has been a huge increase in genetically modified soya imports - threatening contamination. The aim of the Great Cyber Wall is to get as many people as possible to write to Bunge, one of the world's largest traders and processors of soya, to ask them to stop supplying GE soya to the Chinese market. The more letters sent the larger the Cyber Wall will grow - keeping it safe from the superweed that is GE soya.

For now, China is still the centre of origin and diversity for soya, with more then 6 000 wild varieties. In its long history of cultivation, there have come into being, as a result of both natural and artificial selection, some 23 000 varieties all with markedly different characteristics, uses and sowing times. This diversity and richness has made an enormous contribution to soya development in the world.

Ancient soya varieties have continued to persist in regions where domestication took place, and still contain genes important for agricultural production. Because these crop plants may still interbreed with many of their wild relatives, genes from the wild can be used to improve our crop plants. Genetic information for important characteristics such as disease and pest resistance, yield and flour quality are continually sought and utilized in breeding programs of all of our major crop plants.

A diverse repository of genes is essential to breeders around the world as they work to adapt crops against new pests and diseases and to changing climatic conditions. The genetic diversity of crops is directly related to food security. Jack Harlan, the famous botanist, has noted that genetic diversity 'stands between us and catastrophic starvation on a scale we cannot imagine.'

If GE soya is planted intentionally or unknowingly in China, gene flow may occur between it and wild soybean, which can lead to the loss of wild soya genes, and, in turn, the loss of genetic diversity.

Recent Chinese research showed that GE soya could spread its foreign gene and contaminate non-GE wild soya and cultivated soybean through pollination.

In 2003, China imported a massive amount of 20.7 million tons of soya, mainly from the US and Argentina - growing regions that are both heavily contaminated with GE soya. There is a high risk that this huge amount of imported GE soya gets accidentally introduced into China's fields.

Genetic contamination, if it ever happens, will seriously threaten soya's centre of biodiversity. The centre of biodiversity of maize in Mexico became contaminated with genetically modified varieties and we want stop this from happening with soya in China. Soya biodiversity is essential for the production of high-yielding, high quality and pest-resistant soybean.

As soya is one of China's main food staples, much depends on protecting its genetic diversity. Soya is an essential food source in China - used for cooking oil, sauce, tofu and more and 40 million farmers depend on the crop for their livelihoods. We need to protect this diversity.