China's soy imports raise environmental questions

China's soy imports raise environmental questions

Researchers examine China's growing soybean imports and shrinking non-GMO soy output

Balancing public concern about GMO safety and demand for affordable food has been a struggle for China, a new report explains, especially as soybean imports flood the country while domestic fields shrink.

In the report, researchers at Michigan State University examined the issue from the lens of Chinese soy farmers, whose crops struggle on the world market.

Researchers specifically looked at the Chinese no GMO regulations and the global environmental implications of the country's crop policies. The study is published in this week's journal Scientific Reports.

Researchers examine China's growing soybean imports and shrinking non-GMO soy output (Thinkstock/Fofokostic)

The study has discovered what Chinese farmers are growing on lands once dominated by non-GM soy, as well as farmers bucking that trend and planting more. Researchers say these farming choices may offer solutions to a national dilemma.

"Many studies have focused on the global expansion of GM crops. However, the spatial and temporal changes of non-GM crops are not clear, although they have significant socioeconomic and environmental impacts as well as policy implications," said MSU researcher Jianguo "Jack" Liu.

"Understanding the finer points of growing soybeans will be a crucial step to managing a global enterprise," he said.

Chinese demand
Demand for soybean as food, feed and oil has soared as China's economy booms and eating habits change. China is now the world's largest soybean importer, bringing in more than 80% of the soybeans consumed, mostly from Brazil and the United States. Those imported crops are GM crops.

Jing Sun, a research associate in MSU's Center for Systems Integration and Sustainability, found that soybean farming in China is generally struggling as farmers switch to more profitable crops, with soybean fields shrinking and becoming more fragmented.

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Sun also discovered, however, surprising pockets of resilience and identified strengths in soybean cultivation that may point a way to give Chinese soybean consumers what they say they want.

"Cost versus food safety concerns is a dilemma in China, and consumers are pretending not to notice the soybeans they are getting are genetically modified," Sun said. "Our work will help inform the Chinese government on the status of local soybean crops, which is an issue that transcends the GM controversy, and includes environmental concerns."

Environmental question
Sun and colleagues scrutinized satellite data of the nation's leading soybean-growing region, Heilongjiang Province in northeastern China.

There they found farmers converting fields from soybean to corn, but not without environmental consequence. Unlike soybeans, corn cannot use nitrogen in the soil, so requires more fertilizers that can cause pollution.

Yet even as daunting market pressures reduce soy plantings, Sun's analysis found surprising hotspots of soybeans. Turns out soybean farming does have advantages that may point the way to resurgence. Farmers in the north found soybeans more forgiving of cold springs and short growing seasons that can cause corn to fail. And for some, soybean farming is a powerful tradition.

The authors say China's current dependence on foreign imports to fill its burgeoning soybean demand -- and its decrease in domestic production -- comes with potential costs around the globe, including the possibility of Amazon rainforest deforestation as Brazil ramps up soybean production to meet demand.

Source: MSU

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