Is China’s GMO corn ban protecting consumers or protecting markets?

For 42 years, Don Villwock has grown soybeans and corn on 4,000 acres in southwest Indiana. He has endured low prices, bad weather and trade embargoes. This year, however, he’s facing a new challenge: China.

In March, China’s authorities stopped accepting exports of corn that contained a specific, very common genetic modification intended to make the plant resistant to insects. A few months later China also began rejecting dried distillers grain – a byproduct of ethanol production – that carried the trait.

Corn2Villwock explains that, as a major market evaporated, prices tumbled, and farms across the US took a financial hit. “We’re one of them,” he says. “I got to see this movie from the front row.”

Genetically modified foods have long been controversial. Opponents argue that these crops damage the environment, contribute to corporate control of food systems, and have not been proven safe for human consumption. Supporters counter that genetically engineered crops require less pesticide use and could be a key part of confronting rising food demand worldwide.

China’s recent moves, however, raise questions about the global future of GMO crops.

Ripples from a closed market

The trait China rejected was developed by Syngenta, one of the major producers of genetically engineered seeds. Four years ago, they released it under the name Viptera; since then, it has been approved in most major markets, including the US and the generally GMO-shy European Union. China, however, has lagged on approving the trait. Earlier this year, they began cracking down on imports.

Veronica Nigh, an economist for the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF), says that, in recent years, China has bought about 40% of the dried distillers grain produced in the US. But now, with Viptera unwelcome in China, many middlemen have become unwilling to buy any corn that might contain the trait, and many farmers have been left with surplus corn. In turn, the extra supply of corn in the market has driven down prices for all corn growers.

“When your number one customer starts rejecting [your crop], the price drops quickly,” Nigh says.

In response, the US Grains Council asked Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack to pressure China to approve the trait. Some critics, however, place the blame squarely on Syngenta for pushing a new trait before it was approved by a major trading partner. The North American Export Grain Association and the National Grain and Feed Association have asked Syngenta to cease marketing Viptera and another unapproved trait. International trading company Cargill and livestock feed exporter Trans Coastal have both sued the biotech giant, claiming expected losses of $90 million and $41 million, respectively.

Syngenta did not respond to requests for comment, but has rejected responsibility on its website. David Morgan, president of Syngenta Seeds, has asserted that halting marketing of certain seeds at this point would be tantamount to giving a foreign nation control over US agricultural practices.

At the moment, biotech companies are standing by the power of GMOs. Villwock says, however, that some farmers are considering a return to conventional seed next year rather than risk growing crops that prove unsellable.

An economic power play?

AFBF’s Nigh suggests that China has economic reasons for rejecting Viptera: Chinese corn farmers are experiencing significant surpluses right now, and slowing imports could help buoy prices for these growers. However, once the fear of GMOs is incited, she says, it is not easy to reverse.

“Long-term, our concern is that it slows down the abilities of US farmers to adopt the newest and best technology available to them,” she says.

Monsanto, a major seed producer that is not currently having trouble with China, is still developing GMO traits. But Rob Fraley, the company’s chief technology officer, points out that it has also been dedicating a growing portion of its budget – currently over 50% – to “advanced breeding” programs. Whereas GMO seeds generally contain altered DNA or genetic code from other species, this new program is more like an accelerated, science-aided version of old fashioned breeding: scientists use gene mapping techniques to identify desired traits in plants, making it easier for breeders to select for these characteristics.

“They can breed faster, they can breed more precisely, they can map and tag breeding traits – but it’s not a GMO,” Fraley says.

These techniques have already produced an antioxidant-boosting broccoli that is just coming to market, Fraley says, noting that other varieties that offer enhanced nutrition, better flavor, and other desirable traits are also in development.

There are also promising alternatives to genetically modified crops, says Bill Freese, a science policy analyst for the Center for Food Safety. Farming practices known as ecological agriculture – including crop rotation and the planting of cover crops – can help keep weeds at bay, making it unnecessary to plant herbicide-resistant GMO seeds. Moreover, he explains, conventional breeding programs have produced the kinds of drought-tolerant and enhanced-nutrition strains promised by genetic engineering. However, none of these new varieties have yet been able to gain traction in the market because the breeders, many of whom are publicly funded, don’t have the money or clout to compete with GMO producers, he says.

Even with the challenges they’re facing, GMOs are likely to stick around. Genetically modified crops make up nearly 90% of the corn grown in the US. And, according to a recent study by the Georg-August-University of Goettingen, GMO seed has increased yields by 22% and farmers’ profits by 68%.

Many farmers are planning to stick with their GMO seeds. When prices are low, Villwock says, it just makes sense to use the seeds with the highest yields. And, in his experience, those are genetically modified crops. “There’s no doubt the economics lean towards planting a GMO crop,” Villwock says. “We will stay planting GMOs on our farm.”

This story originally ran on on November 20, 2014.