The continued illegal sale of genetically modified (GM) food in parts of China has prompted the Ministry of Agriculture (MoA)to order officials to track down possible testing facilities.
In a document published yesterday, the ministry asked agricultural supervisors to look for possible unauthorised genetic modification testing sites at research institutions, universities and corporations.
It also ordered local governments to step up the supervision of GM food in the market.
The government has only approved two genetically modified plants – insect-resistant cotton and virus-resistant papaya – to be harvested for commercial purposes.
But the ministry acknowledged yesterday that the “illegal spread of GM food in certain areas”, which it said has sparked off public debate.
Under pressure from rapidly increasing food consumption, Beijing favours a “proactive attitude” on GM technology research but is careful about actual commercial sales.
Last month, environmental group Greenpeace said an independent laboratory’s test of 15 samples of rice bought randomly from markets in Wuhan showed that four contain GM varieties. Other illegal sales of GM crops have been reported in recent years.
The agriculture ministry wants “comprehensive, systematic and thorough” supervision on every stage of the process – from experimenting, examining varieties and production to processing and sales.
It ordered harsh punishments for those who fail to label their food as genetically modified, according to regulations.
"We hope that the MoA will make substantial efforts to find out how illegal GMO crops leaked out and stop this at the source," says Wang Jing, Food and Agriculture Campaigner at Greenpeace East Asia.
Zhu Zhen, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Genetics and Developmental Biology, said the MOA has always been strict with regulation on GM tests.
He said the ministry punished many companies and institutions for unstandardised planting of GM crops in testing fields, but only the actions were not reported.
It could help the public understand supervision over the technology if the government discloses such cases, he said.
The genetic modification on food is a controversial subject around the world. On the mainland, academics, officials and ordinary people have raised concerns that using GM crops could cause unforeseen damage to human health as well as the environment, such as by introducing engineered genes into the wild.
The central government has raised awareness about its stance on the issue and promoted the acceptance of GM technology through the People’s Daily and China Central Television.
Greenpeace today welcome the ministry’s move.
“We hope that the [ministry] ... will make substantial efforts to find out how illegal GMO crops leaked out and stop this at the source," said Wang Jing, Greenpeace East Asia’s food and agriculture campaigner.