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  • GMO China: How Global Debates Transformed China's Agricultural Biotechnology Policies by Cong Cao
  • Nancy N. Chen (bio)
Cong Cao. GMO China: How Global Debates Transformed China's Agricultural Biotechnology Policies. New York: Columbia University Press, 2018. xx, 288 pp. Paperback $35.00, isbn 978-0-231-17167-0. Hardcover $105.00, isbn 978-0-231-17166-3. EBook $34.99, isbn 978-0-231-54109-1.

The familiar story of agriculture in China may evoke dramatic images of multi-terraced rice paddies etched into the rural landscape by hardworking farmers. This book brings readers into twenty-first century China and its transformations of agricultural biotechnology over the past two decades. The rise of life science research and biotechnology in this century is far reaching and worldwide. China's contributions to the biosciences, in addition to the prominence of biotechnology as part of its national formation, offers insights [End Page 18] onto governance that is both global as well as unique to China. Institutional infrastructure across these contexts emerges as a complex maze—the list of multiple organizational abbreviations at the onset is a significant catalog of these numerous global entities. Cao identifies a range of stakeholders: "policymakers, scientists, farmers, companies, NGOs, and consumers" (p. 199) who all contribute to distinct contexts for understanding transgenic technology. Each chapter addresses different configurations of these diverse interests in China and how certain groups became polarized regarding genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and food safety. Through careful analysis of documents and state policies, Cao draws readers to the emerging role of Chinese media and how notions of risk or safety may influence governing policies.

Understanding what transgenic technology does or its impact can be inherently complex, especially when ordinary consumers may have little direct knowledge about ongoing innovations in genetic engineering or emergent ethical frameworks to guide their assessment. Cao begins by delving into the history of genetic modification which commenced in the 1970s with experimental insertion of recombinant DNA (rDNA) with desired traits into an organism. This approach was expanded with the development of specific DNA designed with specific traits which effectively bypassed conventional breeding as "novel genetic combinations give the recipient crop traits associated with the new gene to produce a transgenic, or GM, crop" (p. 4). While the first GM plant was developed in Belgium in 1983, commercial planting did not ensue until nearly a decade later. GM tobacco was approved for planting in China in 1992 and Cao points out that "first generation GM crops" initially offered farmers the ability to reduce herbicides and pesticides while increasing yields as a result. In subsequent iterations of "second generation GM crops" specific features such as "higher nutritional content, improved food quality including taste, and added medicinal properties" (p. 5). Determining global standards for biosafety commenced in 1986 with the Organization of Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) blue book which defined rDNA safety protocols. In the initial framework of global GM policy, Cao offers three models of engagement. Cao comparatively assesses U.S. regulatory policies and federal agency supervision of GMO development, European Union directives and regulations, and India's biosafety regime particularly with regard to Bt cotton. While the United States and the E.U. policies reflect "polar opposites" concerning GM crops and foods and their labelling, the "rigid" Indian regulatory context reflects the impact of anti-GMO activism in the face of farmer suicides (p. 37).

In the Chinese context, Cao traces the emergence of transgenic technology through the formation of documents, specifically ones generated by the state. The author offers invaluable insight on the significance and hierarchy of documents over laws and other governing statutes or regulations, noting that [End Page 19] "the political weight of a central document is greater than that of a law, which, in turn, is greater than that of a State Council administrative statute or a ministerial regulation" (p. 44). He remarks on the exceptional use of Central Documents #1 which invoke transgenic technology and GM policy. The three tables in Chapter Three, in particular, offer a triptych of historical documentation regarding biotechnology development policy. Table 3.1 traces a decade of state policy (between 2007 and 2016) which range from implementing...


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