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Import Safety and Export Barriers After China's WTO Accession
2004-10-27

By HAN MENG

China’s WTO entry further globalizes its economy. With the increase of trade contacts between China and foreign countries, import safety and export barriers emerge unexpectedly. The information channels between governments at different levels and between different industries, along with import and export alerts and protection and handling systems, await further improvement.

Import Safety

Import safety covers economics, resources and the environment, and includes grain safety, animal and plant safety, environmental safety and life insurance in rural areas. Invasion by non-native species and the dangers of genetically modified plants are two grave issues.

Invasion by Non-Native Species

In late 2002, carnivorous piranhas, mainly from the drainage area of the Amazon River in South America, were discovered in many provinces, autonomous regions and municipalities in China. This caused great concern, and fears that the carnivorous piranhas would cause an enormous ecological disaster in lakes and rivers in south China.

An invasion by non-native organisms means species entering a new area from their original area and causing economic loss and ecological disasters. The increase in trade brings not only various species that we can enjoy, but also numerous negative effects against which we should be vigilant.

China has a vast territory where many non-native species can find suitable habitats, making the country vulnerable to invasion. Non-native organisms, including plants, animals and microorganisms, have entered almost all of China’s ecological system, such as forests, agricultural areas, wetlands, grassland, urban residential areas, and most seriously, rivers and lakes.

Currently there are 37 species of alien animals and 90 species of alien plants in China. In the 1950s, China promoted water hyacinths, introduced from foreign countries, as pig feed. Now, the plants block rivers and hurt shipping, irrigation and aquaculture, greatly damaging China’s water ecological systems and polluting the water in rivers and lakes. Another example is bullfrogs from North America. Fleeing into the wild of China, they now threaten local animals because of their adaptability, high reproduction rate, varied feeding habits and lack of natural enemies. As a result, they have been added to China’s alien organism invasion list.

Non-native species have damaged China’s environment and its economy, causing over 57.4 billion yuan in economic losses per year.

On the other hand, China has also successfully introduced animal and plant species from abroad, such as maize, tomatoes, Tilapia and rainbow trout. These species have provided numerous economic benefits.

Introducing alien organisms has both advantages and disadvantages. Scientific investigation and strict approval procedures are the key steps to stop any invasion. We should not abandon our efforts simply because of a few setbacks.

At present, China lacks laws restricting the import of foreign species. For example, no law in China bans the import of carnivorous piranhas. China needs to establish and improve its ecological safety mechanism to fight against the introduction of such species. Measures should be taken to establish and improve laws and regulations overseeing the management of the import of alien organisms. Efficient monitoring systems must be set up. A list of prohibited species should be made public and training on the differentiation of species, prevention measures and risk analysis skills, and crisis management should be strengthened. To increase public awareness, efforts should be made to publicize the harm caused by non-native species.

China should undertake a nationwide investigation to discover the quantities, distribution and effects of foreign species. Based on the investigation, a database should be established to analyze their effect on China’s ecosystem and native species. An evaluation system must be devised to judge their impact on China’s ecosystem.

Biotechnology Risk

The risk from biotechnology comes primarily from genetically engineered products.

Genetically engineered plants and foods have caused serious controversy. Some experts believe that the toxins in genetically modified crops can poison and even cause cancer, deformity or mutation. As of yet, though, no scientific discovery can back up such claims.

China imports around $1 billion of genetically modified soybeans annually from the United States, about the same amount as China’s total production. China’s soybean processing enterprises, especially oil extracting factories, prefer to use the genetically modified soybeans due to their high oil content and low price. The Secretary of U.S. Department of Agriculture visited China at the end of July 2002 specifically to discuss the export of soybeans to China. According to a newly passed bill, the U.S. Government will increase allocations to agriculture by nearly 80 percent. This will further reduce the price of genetically modified soybeans. The Chinese Government should take measures to protect the interest of Chinese soybean growers and soybean processing enterprises. The decisions of whether China should develop genetically modified soybeans to meet the demands of the market, and how to solve international trade disputes, should be made soon.

Around 20 million tons of genetically engineered foods enter China annually, but most Chinese consumers do not know that what they eating has been modified. Government departments should establish systems to force manufacturers to label genetically modified foods.

Export Barriers

After the first year of China’s WTO accession, the “green barrier” remains the biggest problem facing export of China’s agricultural produce. The European Union has set restrictions on livestock from China, Japan has strengthened inspections on vegetables imported from China, and the Republic of Korea and the United States have increased their limits on Chinese exports of aquatic products. In 2002, cases of Chinese agricultural products being refused, detained, suspended and even rejected by developed countries are much more common than in previous years, mainly because residues of veterinary medicines, pesticides and heavy metals exceed their standards. Data from the United Nations shows that approximately $7.4 billion of China’s export commodities, including agricultural products, were refused due to this “green barrier.”

China has long had a comparative advantage in terms of price in labor-intensive farm produce. In recent years, trade protectionism has risen because the world economy remains in the doldrums. Food safety has become the main excuse for developed countries to refuse China’s agricultural exports. Some countries have set unfair and discriminative “green barriers” on China’s export products, some of which are stricter than international standards. In inspecting China’s chickens, Japan sets indexes much higher than on those imported from the United States and other countries.

Meanwhile, we must be aware that compared with developed countries, China lags behind in areas of science and technology, management, ecological environmental protection, farmers’ educational quality and organizational level. It is necessary for China to carefully analyze the quality of its products and actively develop “green food” to break through the “green barriers,” and to expand China’s agricultural export channels. Meanwhile, an agricultural export service system should be established to provide international key data and market information for Chinese export enterprises. The roles of guild organizations, such as chambers of import and export, should be brought into full play. It is imperative to devise rules and regulations to standardize operation and strengthen communications with foreign organizations.

In the future, the international trade environment will become more complicated. Since China is still a new WTO member, some have not yet responded to China’s entry. Once more agricultural products are exported to these countries, they will take measures to protect their domestic industries. China should be aware of this and devise corresponding solutions.

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