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NOTE: Part 1 of this series is here:
Pig deaths, human reproductive problems, and suspected GMOs
Update from China
Claire Robinson
GMWatch, 22 March 2013

In recent weeks thousands of dead pigs have been found in Chinese rivers, apparently dumped there by farmers. No one knows what killed the pigs, though there have been attempts to blame the porcine circovirus, which has been found in some (apparently not all) samples.

But while porcine circovirus is widespread in pig herds worldwide, it rarely gives rise to illness. When it does, it produces clear clinical symptoms of wasting, intestinal lesions, rough coat, skin problems, and enlarged lymph nodes.

If circovirus were the cause of death, the symptoms should have been obvious while the pigs were still alive. Yet the Chinese government has denied that there have been any epidemics of disease in Jiaxing, where the dead pigs originated.

One journalist said the phenomenon was likely the result of a recent clampdown on the sale of diseased pigs for meat – farmers can no longer get rid of them into the food chain so they dump them in rivers – though this raises the question of why there were so many diseased pigs in the first place.

While it's possible that more than one factor is involved in the pig deaths, activists are demanding that the government investigate a possible correlation with GM soy and maize feed.

In fact, some believe that feed made with an undeclared GMO has already caused animal deaths and abnormalities in China.

The maize in question is Pioneer's Xianyu335, also known as XY335 or simply 335, which has quickly come to dominate Chinese maize production in the past few years. The maize has yielded well in most years, but has generated huge controversy.

According to an article from the Asia Times in 2011, XY335 is blamed for causing sterility and birth defects (called "mutations" in the article) in pigs and rats that eat the corn.

The Asia Times article recounts how a year earlier, in 2010, the International Economic Herald had published an article, based on months of field investigation, that described the rapid penetration of XY335 into Shaanxi province and other areas. The Herald article, which does not appear to be available in English, attributed XY335's success to its intrinsic superiority and to the efforts of a highly-motivated, commission-driven sales drive.  

But while the Herald article seems to have set out to praise the new miracle seed, it ended up taking a completely opposite turn. The Asia Times notes of the Herald article, "The good news for Pioneer was erased by an editor's afterword. It declared that it had received reports of abnormalities in areas where a lot of XY335 was grown and consumed."

The Herald sent back its reporter for a second look, and stated: "The population of rats decreased, sows miscarried ... various kinds of animal abnormalities caused one to be uneasy and bewildered. Increase in natural predators, mouldy corn, ecological pollution ... these various possibilities were refuted one by one. The only remaining factor that tied all these animal abnormality clues together was the feed that these animals had consumed: XY335."

The Asia Times added, "Pioneer has also been dogged by rumours that the seed's male parent, PH4CV, is genetically modified… GM corn is not approved for commercial use in China."

Pioneer China has vehemently denied that XY335 has GM traits.

The PH4CV parent line as patented in the US was not GM, though the patent does foresee its ability to be genetically modified to incorporate additional traits.

And there are many ways that unwanted toxins can be introduced into the food and feed supply, GM being just one. Others include pesticides or toxic components resulting from some accident of conventional breeding methods.

Interestingly, however, in a web advertisement for XY335 (screengrab taken 21 Mar 2013), the variety is described as highly resistant to the corn borer pest. Unless resistance to corn borer has been naturally bred into the maize variety (in which case, the rest of the world should know that potentially toxic GM Bt technology is not needed to resist corn borer), the wording appears to suggest that the maize has been subjected to genetic modification to incorporate Bt insecticidal toxin. The relevant page is in Chinese, but Google translate does a fair job.

Pioneer China's XY335 maize

The Herald article caused a big stir in China, according to Mr Li,* a Chinese citizen who alerted GMWatch to the recent pig death crisis and its role in the ongoing debate in China about GMO safety. Mr Li has a background in the food export industry but became active in opposing GMOs after he was repeatedly asked by his foreign customers about the GM content of the products he was selling. He did some intensive research and was alarmed by what he found.

Mr Li says, "Judging from the comments on the Internet after the report was published, these abnormalities in animals were common in almost all the provinces in north China. Mass deaths of foetuses, piglets and pigs have also happened in the middle and south of China in the past few years. Nearly all animal feed is based on GM corn and GM soy meal made from soybeans imported from the USA."  Following publication of the article, Mr Li says unofficial reports emerged from doctors and hospital workers of an escalation in reproductive problems in pregnant women in north China where XY335 was widely grown and consumed, including a cessation of development in the hearts of foetuses, aborted foetuses, and stillbirths – with the alleged common factor being consumption of XY335 corn.

Mr Li believes that it is because of these reports of damage to human and animal health that XY335 is gradually and quietly being withdrawn from the seed market, though it is still advertised on the Internet. If any official reason is ever needed for the fading from view of XY335, it is likely to be what Mr Li calls its "instability in production in recent years". This is a diplomatic way of saying that XY335 plants were reported to have fallen over in the field in the high winds of 2011, leading to massive losses for farmers.

Mr Li takes little comfort from the decline of this one suspect maize, as he agrees with the view of the sources cited in the Asia Times article, that many unofficial GM varieties of maize and possibly other GM crops are being widely grown in China, often labeled as "hybrids".

But there are signs of a shift in China. The lack of transparency and scientific rigour underlying the country's GMO policy has led to public mistrust and anger. Mr Li says, "More and more people in China are joining the big battle against GM foods and the vicious GMO interest groups" that promote them.

And with the advent of a new government that has pledged its commitment to cleaning up the country's troubled food supply, Mr Li says he is "cautiously optimistic" about the future.

He says there are signs that the new government recognises that the tide of public opinion is turning against GMOs. Only a few months ago, a big meeting was held by officials of the previous government and GMO experts to expedite GMO expansion in China. At the meeting, GMOs were declared "a national strategic pillar industry".

Yet on 7 March 2013, Reuters reported Peng Yufa of the Agricultural GMO Safety Committee of China's Ministry of Agriculture (MOA) as saying that in order to ease public concern, China will halt the introduction and commercialization of GM rice and corn.

Though Peng Yufa did not explicitly state the duration of the delay, he said it could take five years before consumers were willing to buy GMOs and farmers are willing to plant them, due to dispute and lack of adequate information on GMOs.

Meanwhile, Mr Li is aware that his reports of GMO-related problems in China "could put me in an awkward position and even bring me trouble. But if we do not tell the truth, the great harm will not be realized and dealt with and more serious consequences will result. People all over the world need to unite and fight against GM foods and the GMO interest groups to make our earth GM-free."

* Name changed to protect his identity