BEIJING, China (Reuters) — China’s state media are working overtime to persuade the public that genetically modified food is safe.
The campaign could be seen as an attempt to soften up the population for a policy switch to allow the sale of such food to ensure the country’s 1.35 billion people have enough to eat.
China’s urban population has increased to 700 million from less than 200 million in the past 30 years, driving up demand for meat and staples such as rice that scientists say only genetic modification can satisfy.
Imported GM soybeans are already used as feed for animals, but winning acceptance for the more widespread use of GM crops may be a hard sell in a country frequently in the grip of food scares, such as those over baby milk powder and chemicals in chickens earlier this year.
GM food faces opposition even at the top levels of Chinese bureaucracy, with a senior national security official likening it to opium.
However, state media is taking up the fight.
Communist Party mouthpiece the People’s Daily recently rejected rumours that eating GM food could alter human DNA, and news agency Xinhua ran an investigation debunking tales that GM corn consumption had reduced sperm counts.
Zhang Qifa, known as China’s “father of GM rice,” recently criticized the agriculture ministry for refusing to approve strains that have cost hundreds of millions of dollars in re-search over the past decade.
Beijing granted safety certificates for its first GM rice in 2009 but has so far refused to authorize commercial production until the public is on side.
The certificate for Zhang’s pest-resistant B.t. rice will expire next year, meaning researchers must reapply, which could take years.
“Right now, China’s GMO rice production has ground to a halt,” Zhang said. “I personally think we have missed opportunities to develop.”
GMO commercialization isn’t a matter for the public and should begin without delay, he added.
Huang Dafang, a researcher with the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences’ Biotechnology Research Institute, was unimpressed with the media campaign.
“We have not seen any signs of progress, only the continuation of the debate.”
Scientists have been at pains to show that GMOs are already part of the food chain. China is the world’s top importer of GM soybeans for feed and also imports GM corn.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture has forecast that China’s rice imports would reach a record high 3.4 million tonnes in 2013-14, and researchers say the country is facing a growing food gap that can only be properly addressed through the use of genetic modification.
However, while policy-makers have expressed optimism about GM crops and scientists have long urged the government to allow new strains of GM rice, Beijing will not move until it is sure the risks are minimal and that, crucially, the public is behind it.
The debate hasn’t been entirely one-way, with influential researchers still urging caution, especially when it comes to staples such as rice and wheat.
“Many have said there are no risks to GMO food, but the risks may not even be discovered in three or five years but actually over three to five generations,” said Jiang Changyun, research director at the Industrial Development Research Institute, who wants the government to improve food labelling so people can decide themselves whether to eat GM food.
The debate has moved into the realms of national security, with Pang Guangqian, deputy secretary-general of the National Security Policy Committee, likening GM food in August to a new kind of opium being forced upon China by western companies.
Writing in Global Times, a tabloid backed by the People’s Daily, Peng said companies were dumping GM products on China.
Wang Xiaoyu, an official at the Heilongjiang Soybean Association, said GM soy oil eaten in southern parts of the country was linked to high cancer rates.
However, another worry, he conceded, was that imports of cheap GM soy had led to a fall in local production because many planters were unable to compete.
Huang complained that the scientific debate had been hijacked.
“GMO is a scientific matter and should not be debated at the social level,” he said. “If China’s Three Gorges dam and nuclear power were decided by public debate, neither would have been established.”