Safety certificates for the only homegrown experimental genetically modified staple food crops to have the credentials expired yesterday, with no sign that the Ministry of Agriculture will renew the documents.
But advocates of the technology staged GM rice-tasting events in Beijing and 22 other cities across the mainland, with some expecting the government to give the nod for commercialisation of one crop in five years.
Watch: Advocates of GM rice hold tasting events in China
The ministry issued the certificates for one GM corn and two GM rice varieties five years ago to great controversy because they were the first staple foods to get the endorsement. The ministry insisted the crops were safe but have since repeatedly stressed that commercial planting and sales were strictly banned.
"It's like admitting a car is safe to run on the road but not giving it a licence plate," said Jiang Tao, senior engineer at the Chinese Academy of Sciences' Institute of Genetics and Developmental Biology.
Jiang said the expiration would not have an immediate impact on GM food research, but scientists would need to spend more time going through procedures if they wanted to commercialise the foods.
Neither the ministry nor the certificate holders commented on either renewal or approval for new strains.
But Wang Qinfang, a member of the Chinese Society of Biotechnology, said yesterday that four corn strains were expected to gain the safety certificates in three to five years and one could get the go-ahead for commercial planting.
"As consumption of meat has climbed with rapid urbanisation in China, demand for corn as feed for animals has also grown quickly," said Wang, who is also a senior regulatory affairs manager with major seed company Pioneer Hi-Bred International.
"If China imported corn like it does soybeans, the government would face great pressure. So it won't let it happen," she said, referring to the GM soybean imports used for producing edible oil.
According to the ministry, 17 GM products from five plant species - soybeans, corn, oilseed rape, cotton and tomatoes - are sold on the mainland. GM cotton and papaya are the only crops approved for commercial planting on the mainland.
Wang spoke on the sidelines of a GM food-tasting event in Beijing attended by more than 80 GM food advocates. Organisers called off an event in Chongqing on the direction of local authorities, according to the man who first proposed the tastings, Fang Shimin, better known by his pen name Fang Zhouzi.
"The tasting is a special kind of promotion of scientific knowledge … We're not forcing people to eat GM rice but we want to make sure those who are willing to eat can have it," Fang said.
The rice was supplied by a GM research professor at Huazhong Agricultural University, owner of the two rice varieties whose safety certificates just expired.
But opponents dismissed the tastings as a publicity stunt.
"Strictly speaking, [the tastings] are illegal because any experiment on GM food should be approved by the authorities," Greenpeace agricultural campaigner Wang Jing said. "But now they're in a grey area because they said all the participants had volunteered."