Related News

Home » Feature

Soybean Can China resist GM?

NORTHEAST China produces more than half of teh country's soybeans. Today this crop is at crossroads, as home-grown soybeans are facing intense competition from cheaper, imported, genetically modified soybean.

Protein provider

It's August in the city of Bei'an in Heilongjiang Province, and in front of me are glorious fields of soybean that stretch as far as the eye can see.

Come September, it will be time to "shake the bells" - that's local lingo for harvest season. The soybean stalks, which turn golden with the autumn wind, are filled with pods that look almost about to explode, and that is when they will be shaken to get their "bells" out.

The soybean is an extraordinary crop. It contains three times as much protein as wheat by weight, and four times that of maize. It may come as a surprise that as much as 60 percent of the world's protein comes from the soybean. The legume is also known to contain at least five potential anti-cancer agents, such as isoflavones, which could reduce the risk of breast cancer.

The origin of the soybean was once a subject of intense debate. It was a renowned Japanese scholar who showed that the soybean was domesticated in northeast China.

According to pollen analysis and historical records, the wild ancestor of the soybean grew in low-lying areas with high rainfall in the northeast.

Researcher Han Tianfu from the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences believes that it was the soybean that provided the foundation of the Chinese civilization. Five thousand years ago, the diet of the early Chinese lacked protein, and it was the soybean that filled the void.

A story published in Siam Daily named soybean paste, tofu, soybean milk and bean sprouts the "four great food inventions" of ancient China. In addition to soy sauce and soybean oil, the soybean is now also used in clothing fiber, ethanol fuel and many other related products.

Fertilizer factories

The soybean has also had a significant impact on the environment. When the population of China was booming during the Spring and Autumn Period (770?476 BC) and the Han Dynasty (206 BC?AD 220), vast areas had to be opened up to feed the people. It was during this period that farmers discovered an amazing ability of the soybean.

Pull up a stalk of soybean from the ground, and one can see many small nodules on the roots. Each nodule is essentially a fertilizer factory that converts nitrogen from the atmosphere into a form that plants need.

To their surprise, the ancient Chinese found that cultivating soybean actually made the soil more fertile than before. They then tried planting soybean on land that had not been developed and discovered that soybean could help create more arable land.

Today there is a staggering diversity of soybean. Scientists have documented some 7,000 wild varieties of soybean in China alone. There are more than 23,000 cultivated strains recorded by the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences, and the number is growing every year.

To GM or not to GM?

Prior to the 1950s, China was the world's top producer of soybean, and the northeast produced 30?50 percent of all soybean produced in China. In 1953 the top spot was taken by the United States, and in 1974 China was overtaken by Brazil and then in 1998 by Argentina as a top soybean producer.

By 1996 China had become a net importer of soybean, and by 2006 imported soybean accounted for as much as 90 percent of all soybean consumed by China!

Despite this, China still continues to export soybean, most of which is organic soybean produced in the northeast. It was the genetically modified (GM) soybean that led to the decline of the soybean from China.

Soybean farmers have always faced a big problem: removing weeds in soybean fields. In 1996, farmers from the US state of Illinois started growing a new genetically modified soybean designed to be resistant to the powerful herbicide Roundup produced by the American firm Monsanto. Non-Roundup resistant crops would be killed together with the weeds.

Today 60 percent of all soybean planted are genetically modified varieties. Can China resist the pressure to use genetically modified soybean? This is a question that many experts struggle to answer. While genetic modification results in higher crop yields, there are risks involved.

"The use of GM crops has yet to take off in China," says researcher Han. "As for herbicide-resistant soybean, after extracting oil from the soybean, the remains are usually used to make animal feed. There is a chance that the herbicide could end up in our bodies through the food chain, and more research is needed to ensure that this does not happen."

Han acknowledges that it is only a matter of time before genetically modified soybean makes its appearance in China.

However, his colleague Qiu Lijuan advocates a more cautious approach, as genetic pollution - which could arise from crossing GM soybean with wild varieties - is irreversible.

In the meantime, the non-GM soybean from northeast China has already gained a loyal following among the health-conscious. However, it is unclear if this could be a way through the crossroads.


Copyright © 1999- Shanghai Daily. All rights reserved.Preferably viewed with Internet Explorer 8 or newer browsers.

沪公网安备 31010602000204号

Email this to your friend