Magazine / January 2012

When the scientists are the bad guys

Farmers work the field in Yunnan.

Farmers work the field in Yunnan.

Now enter a new character. Swiss-born Isabelle Meister was a veteran Greenpeace campaign by the time she joined the China team in 2005. She is 48 years old. Kontau stepped aside and Isabelle headed the Food & Agriculture campaign. (She's still there today).

Genetic Engineering The science behind it

"It's easier to attack a corporation for their dirty methods or products," she muses. "But what do you do when the bad guys are scientists in publicly-funded institutes or on a government board? Scientists should be neutral. They shouldn't be the ones you want to attack. So this was a big shock to me." 

Campaign with Chinese characteristics

Isabelle Meister, Food and Agriculture CampaignerIsabelle decided to use a campaign method with Chinese characteristics: China is a country where money talks, nationalism is rampant and people take their food seriously. So the campaign began pushing the angle that GE was quite literally a threat to food sovereignty. Multi-national companies – not Chinese farmers – stand to profit from GE rice from technology and patents.

Never before had a country's staple food gone GE. Monsanto had tried and failed to commercialize GE wheat in Canada. Now they were hoping China would become the first guinea pig, opening the gate to genetic experiments with staple crops.

Sneaky meetings and bad news

There was a respite in 2006 after the Chinese government imposed a two-year moratorium on the commercialization process. The biosafety committee called for more research. But it proved to be the calm before a storm. Just after the two years were up, the State Council approved a RMB20 billion fund for GE research and development, with rice at the top of the list. Suddenly top government officials – previously, at least to the public, neutral about GE – were looking very pro-GE.

By the end of 2009 it looked all but inevitable that China's rice would go GE. Long after the fact, the government announced that a secret multi-ministerial meeting had passed two GE rice lines – even though they had not received biosafety certificates at the time. 

"We had an emergency on our hands!" remembers Isabelle.