This paper looks at the politics of biosafety regulation in China. Policy processes around GM crops – Do we want them? What might they offer? What risks are associated with them? – take different shapes in different settings.
In China biosafety decision-making is one key arena where agricultural biotechnology policy is defended and contested. Scientific disputes over who should practise risk assessment, and bureaucratic contests over who should have responsibility for regulation have simmered away, and reflect different perspectives on the role of agricultural biotechnology in Chinese agricultural and food systems. The paper looks at how risk assessments of Bt cotton and regulatory decisions about imports of GM soyabeans have used scientific arguments strategically to defend China’s nascent biotech industry and the country’s room for manoeuvre in relation to agricultural trade and food security policy choices. Chinese regulators talk the language of sound-science but in practice often use science flexibly. There are, however, dilemmas with this, and this is illustrated by the attempts of those scientifically or bureaucratically marginalised within the regulatory process to push for more wide-ranging consideration of the environmental impacts of insect-resistant cotton or potential commercialisations of GM food crops. These deliberations bring questions of uncertainty, precaution and the social nature of risk centre stage. Such an analysis of regulation shows that science-policy cultures are not only central to the politics of GM crops, they also open up far wider questions about how China negotiates the unchartered waters of constructing appropriate institutions to effectively manage the risks associated with the new technologies it is so rapidly embracing in its pursuit of modernisation and economic growth.