The ingredients are hidden, but the companies can't hide

Feature story - 17 January, 2003
Genetically engineered food products will not be able to hide much longer in the largest food market in the world. Many Chinese do not even know they are being sold GE products, but a new poll shows they want a choice and some are even willing to pay more for non-GE products. Already consumers in China have turned on companies like Nestle for selling GE products not labelled. The unrest will grow as a local group and Greenpeace take to the road to promote food safety.

Volunteers from Greenpeace and Green Hope, a Guangzhou environmental group, blindfold themselves while holding Nestle's Maggi Beancurd and Vegetable Soup which has been found to contain GE ingredients.

Soya is a food staple in China, there are records of crops stretching back at least 4800 years. Although soya has a long history in China, something new has arrived with the soya in recent years. Because of China's huge population, the country imports 50 percent of the soya consumed, mainly from the US, Brazil and Argentina. A large portion of this contains genes never found in soya when it was first grown in China. A good portion of the soya is genetically engineered.

But many consumers are unaware they are not eating the same soya their families have eaten for generations.

A survey conducted on behalf of Greenpeace in the southern city of Guangzhou showed that 64 percent of Guangzhou citizens did not know that they were buying GE food products in supermarkets, but they clearly wanted the choice. Over 80 percent of participants wanted GE products to be labelled. Almost half said they would even be willing to pay more for non-GE products, even if they cost as much as 10 percent more than the GE products.

China's urban consumers are basically the same as consumers in developed countries with the majority favouring non-GE food once they are given the right to choose.

China faces a tough fight against multinational companies trying to push their GE products on new markets in the developing world. Protection of their natural diversity of one of the planets staple crops is just one of many such fights China has faced since the market gates were blown wide open by entry into the World Trade Organisation in 2001. China does not want to join Mexico as centre of diversity that has had the original crop strain contaminated by genetically engineered varieties, as Mexico did with maize.

The Chinese Government has wisely taken a more cautious approach in commercialising GE food crops because officials are uncertain whether the market would accept GE food, but enforcement of the new GE labelling legislation is still being worked out. This has left gaping loopholes for many US biotech companies growing soya, and other foreign food giants like Nestle which are very eager to exploit for the huge commercial gains they stand to make.

But Chinese consumers are not swallowing this as easily as bean curd. Late last year public unease boiled over with Nestle's marketing of unlabelled GE food products in China. One web poll on China's largest website ( recorded 5000 people signing up in just two days, 99 percent against Nestle's actions. Newspapers reported that Chinese consumers were returning products to Nestle's offices.

Many Chinese people took offence to the fact that they have a right to know what is in their food but were not being told. Although Nestle's unique experience of anticipating consumers' needs and sating them with GE-food products has paid off in many countries, China still has a huge variety of natural foods which are used to produce mouth watering dishes in dozens of regional cuisines.

And unrest has spread to many of these regions. Recently, Heilongjiang province, responsible for 80 percent of soya exports from China, declared a policy to keep GE soy away from the province. In the neighbouring province of Liaoning, the provincial government demanded that soya milk for school children must be non-GE. China's new regulation restricting GE imports also lead to a decrease in soya imports and almost no corn imports last year while China's own corn export to South East Asia exceeded American corn for the first time.

While China is obviously becoming aware of the luming threat to their food supply, many consumers are still unaware and that is why Greenpeace and Greenhope, an enthusiastic and determined volunteers group, have teamed up for the first GE Food Roadshow in the southern city of Guangzhou.

The fact that the Roadshow is being held in Guangzhou is very appropriate. Dr. Sun Yat-sen, widely accepted as being founder of modern China and the first President of the Republic, was born into a farming family near the city - its famous Zongshan University is named after him. Dr. Sun Yat-sen is revered by Chinese people for his progressive policies and we wonder whether he would've judged GE-food as a step forward or a step back, given that no one knows what the impact of GE crops and GE food products will have on the country and its people.

The roadshow will run from Friday 17th to Monday 20th January and we will host events, including a GE-free banquet and school visits, to promote natural food as opposed to the genetically engineered strains that no one asked for.

The roadshow takes place just before Chinese Lunar New Year and the welcoming of the year of the Goat, a time for the clearing out of unwanted items from your house. Let's hope that China gets rid of GE food before it's too late, join us in building a biosafety Great Wall to keep GE food out of China.

You may not be able to make it to Guangzhou to join us but you can follow the roadshow by visiting this website to learn what the people of Guangzhou think of GE food.

Take Action

Spread wishes for a GE-free new year with this Year of the Goat flash ecard.

Visit the Greenpeace China web site.