Fear Factor

Fear Factor

Hrab Op-ed in The American Enterprise Online
August 30, 2004

Environmental activists seeking to halt the worldwide spread of the advanced technologies they fear see <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags" />China as an important battleground.  Predictably, Greenpeace is leading the charge against China's adoption of such technologies.  In 2001, for example, the group ran a loud campaign demanding that the European Union not lend any money to help finance any Chinese nuclear power projects.  Today, Greenpeace has China's acceptance of biotechnology in its crosshairs.<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office" />

 

Frontal assaults on Chinese ambitions to modernize could easily boomerang on Western NGOs like Greenpeace.  This is because Chinese leaders are predisposed to view the outside world with suspicion.  But Greenpeace has obviously studied the Chinese system and learned how to advance its cause without offending the powers-that-be.  In contrast to its clumsy anti-nuclear efforts, Greenpeace is now pursuing a slick campaign to stir up fears of genetically modified (G.M.) foods in China, in the hope of swaying Chinese public opinion.

 

China's sheer size makes it an important prize in the world food market, and thus a vital target for anti-G.M. activists.  Some G.M. foods are already widely available, and many in the Chinese political and scientific establishment favor the widespread adoption of the technology because of the country's dearth of arable land.  Of the soybean products sold in the People's Republic, 70 percent contain GM material, according to The South China Morning Post.  And new strains of G.M. rice may soon be on the way.

 

While Greenpeace cannot directly challenge the Chinese government's acceptance of crops, it can try to bring indirect pressure on the government to change its policy.  One way to do this is by spreading unfounded fears about G.M. products, as the average Chinese consumer knows little about the technology.  This tactic has worked well elsewhere, particularly in Western Europe.  Unfortunately, suspicion towards certain modern conveniences runs high among Chinese consumers, making them ripe for scare tactics.  A July 24 report in The Shanghai Daily, for example, details how many Chinese parents "don't understand painkillers properly and stop [physicians and dentists] from using" them on their children, due to hysterical fears that the children will become addicts.

 

If Greenpeace can stoke fears of G.M. food products in China, and turn consumers in that country against those products, its global anti-GM food crusade would earn a legitimacy it so far lacks.

 

Greenpeace's main weapon in this campaign is a 34-year old Shanghai woman named Eileen Zhu Yanling.  In March 2003, Zhu purchased some Nestle chocolate milk powder for her three-year-old son.  Soon after, she told The China Daily in a January 2004 report, "I learned from a report by Greenpeace the product contained genetically modified elements.”  She subsequently claimed to be shocked by these allegations.  Furthermore, she was disconcerted that while EU regulators required Nestle to label foods containing G.M. products sold in Europe, the same policy did not prevail in China.  Nestle disputed the claim and responded by saying that "it strictly adheres to laws and regulations regarding food safety and food labeling in every country it operates," and that the products it sells in China do not contain any materials that the country's Ministry of Agriculture requires to be labeled as G.M. food. 

 

In June 2003, a court in Shanghai agreed to hear a legal suit Zhu had filed against Nestle.  She wanted the equivalent of about US$2 in compensation—twice the price of the chocolate milk powder.  The case became quickly mired in confusion.  A test of the milk powder in August 2003 revealed the presence of G.M. soybean, but a second test in January 2004 turned up no G.M. products.  In April 2004, the court dismissed the case, based on the second test's results.  Zhu's lawyer is appealing the decision.

 

In December 2003, Greenpeace helped arranged a meeting in Switzerland between Zhu and Nestle representatives.  In a letter Zhu sent to Nestle ahead of the meeting, she requested the company adopt European-style G.M. food labeling practices in China.  She hit the perfect rhetorical note, writing as follows: "I am making these demands [for labeling] because there are millions of mothers in the world who trust Nestle to provide their kids with nutritious food.  Please do not abuse the trust of these mothers and their children!”  Greenpeace's Chinese wing is now using Zhu's story to further the group's anti-G.M. agenda.

 

Because G.M. crops would allow China to develop her agricultural sector and feed her people, the nation's leadership currently favors the technology's spread.  Yet even an undemocratic regime like China's cannot completely ignore public opinion.  A well-coordinated scare campaign might bring just enough pressure on Beijing to change its policy.  That would be a major victory for Greenpeace—and a blow to Chinese consumers and farmers.