In October, 2013, caught between rising pressures to increase its food resources and popular skepticism over allowing more genetically modified food, China’s government began stepping up a public-relations campaign that could pave the way toward full approval for commercial production of these politically sensitive crops.
In 2013, the agriculture ministry and other state agencies rolled out a series of statements and publicity events loudly backing the safety of GMO food, ranging from research on cucumbers to taste tests for rice.
Fronted by appointed heavyweight academics, the ministry stated that there hasn’t yet been any healthy safety issues irrefutably linked to GMO food. GMO foods “undergo rigorous pre-market safety assessment” and GMO yields were far higher than conventional crops, it said.
The last point is arguably of growing importance to China. The world’s most populous nation is facing, for the first time in 10 years, the possibility that its rice production may be falling. While China’s overall grain harvest this year is likely to remain robust, imports of key grains including corn – around 95% of which are genetically modified strains coming from the U.S. – have been surging since 2010.
China currently permits the commercial production of GMO tomatoes, cotton, papaya and bell pepper. It allows the import of GMO corn, soybean, canola and cotton for use in animal feed and other non-human consumption. In November 2009, the Ministry of Agriculture granted bio-safety certificates – which allow for domestic field trials – for two pest-resistant varieties of GMO rice and one variety of corn.
In January 2014, China's "father of hybrid rice", Yuan Longping, says he is working with researchers on rice that has been genetically modified.
"GM is the future. We should not generalise about whether it is harmful," Yuan said in a video about food safety posted recently on the news portal Tencent.
Yuan is widely credited with playing a key role in the increase of China's rice output from 300kg per mu (4,500kg per hectare) in the 1970s to more than 900kg per mu in 2011.
He accomplished this through developing hybrid plants that are selectively bred by conventional means to breed desirable traits in their first generation. GM technology instead uses artificial means to alter plant genomes, often by inserting genes from other organisms into a plant's DNA to introduce traits not found naturally in the plant.
Proponents of GM technology see it as the best, and possibly only, way to feed a growing global population while beating insects and plant diseases without excessive use of harmful chemicals. Its opponents argue, however, that pests are already developing resistance to exotic organisms that have been released into the environment without adequate testing. And, far from increasing the financial independence of farmer, they say the technology has been used more to create proprietary technology monopolised by leading multinational agribusinesses.
The issue has been further complicated and polarised in the mainland, where environmental degradation is driving the quest for more efficient agricultural production. But continuous food scandals have also bred distrust about food and drug safety.
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