Will China Again Lead the World?
Jim Blair

A thousand years ago China was well ahead of Europe in science and technology. The Chinese were using gunpowder, paper, movable type printing and the magnetic compass. They had perfected the crossbow long before the Europeans.

But for some reason they decided not to continue the development of these and other technologies. It was only when the knowledge spread to Europe by way of travelers like Marco Polo that technology continued to advance, and Europe took the lead in technology and with it, world domination.

Today we may be seeing , depending on how you look at it, either a repeat of that process or a reversal of it. Today the technologies involved are not printing and gunpowder, but nuclear power and genetic engineering. While the West (Europe and the USA/Canada) currently has the lead in these fields, we are forfeiting it to Japan (nuclear) and China (both, but especially genetic engineering).

The Wall Street Journal March 29, 2000 had a story on the drive by China to become the world leader in genetics and the applications of genetic engineering. China has a large and growing population with increasing wealth but a shrinking amount of arable land. Heavy use of pesticides in the past has created insect pests that are resistant to them. The Chinese leadership sees genetically modified crops as the best hope of dealing with these problems.

China has been directing billions of dollars of research money into modifying the genes of crops, animals and even humans. A state-of-the-art genetic research laboratory is planned for Inner Mongolia. Such is Beijing's excitement that even its traditional suspicion of foreigners has been set aside, and seeds for GM crops are being bought from Monsanto.

And the effort is paying off. In the past year, the government of China has approved the use of a dozen new strains of rice, potatoes, tomatoes, corn and trees, all developed domestically. There is also a program to clone the Giant Panda to help save it from extinction.

Cotton on the North Plains of China had been decimated by insecticide resistant bollworms a decade ago, but is now thriving due to new insect resistant varieties of cotton plants that increase yields up to five fold.

Genetic modification offers the possibility of crops with greater nutrition, higher yields and that require less fertilizer and insecticide to grow. If this technology is going to be blocked in Europe and even the USA by various opponents, at least it will continue in China. And while a thousand years ago, ideas and goods were slow to spread across the world, today the knowledge is likely to remain available to all.

And if in a few years I can't buy the new GM seeds for my garden locally, maybe I will be able to order them from China over the internet.

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