Hybrid-rice pioneer Yuan Longping backs genetically modified foods

Genetically modified foods increasingly backed by officials and experts as way to feed growing population, but many consumers doubt its safe

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 12 January, 2014, 5:12am
UPDATED : Sunday, 12 January, 2014, 6:43am

China's "father of hybrid rice", Yuan Longping, says he is working with researchers on rice that has been genetically modified - a controversial technology but one that might help the mainland meet its agricultural goals.

"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.

But s urveys suggest that many Chinese consumers, like those elsewhere, remain sceptical of GM foods, or at least believe they are entitled to know whether the food on their dinner table uses the technology.

An online poll of about 900 people conducted by a Shanghai doctor showed that more than 40 per cent of respondents had doubts about GM food, and 25 per cent believed it was unsafe.

Dr Tao Nali, of the Shanghai Municipal Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, said the percentage of doubtful consumers should be higher in reality because those who took the survey were mostly better-educated and were more open to the new technology. In an earlier survey by the news portal in October, 91 per cent of respondents said they would not consume GM food.

The central government has launched a media campaign it hopes will promote public understanding and acceptance of the new technology. But even some provincial governments are at odds with the official policy.

In March, the Gansu food and drug bureau ordered all food sellers across the province to set up separate areas specifically for GM food, and that it be clearly labelled as such, making it the first local government to issue such rules.

The Ministry of Agriculture did not reply to a request from the Sunday Morning Post for a comment on the Gansu ruling. But the move was hailed by many internet users, who said such transparency was good for consumers.

Existing national regulations call for food packages to list any GM content, although there are no standardised rules on how such information should be displayed.

Zhu Zhen, deputy director of the Chinese Academy of Sciences' Bureau of Life Sciences and Biotechnology, said people had asked him why, if GM food was safe, it required special packaging. "I think it's because consumers should be given the right to make their own decisions," said Zhu, who is an advocate of GM technology. "It's necessary to standardise packaging, but unnecessary to display it in prominent positions."

The GM controversy would continue, he said, but the technology would eventually become popular, and China should be prepared for GM rice.

In 2009, the ministry authorised two varieties of GM rice developed by Zhang Qifa , a Hubei professor, and allowed it to be grown in the central province. It was the first authorisation of GM rice, the most important food staple to Chinese, and the news naturally triggered a large debate nationwide. The "safety certificates" issued by the ministry for the two varieties are expected to expire in August.

Xie Huaan, an expert on rice breeding at the Fujian Academy of Agricultural Sciences, said China must embrace the world's best technology for GM crops to avoid having others control it, leaving the nation at a disadvantage.

"The study of GM organisms is a big issue for the national seed industry," he said. "If we hadn't accepted GM cotton, today our cotton market would belong to America."

However, noting public concerns, the ministry has reiterated it will "actively but prudently enhance the research and application of [genetically modified organisms} in agriculture".

Quarantine authorities refused entry of more than 600,000 tonnes of foreign GM corn last year, Xinhua reported. Late last month, another shipment was found to contain an unapproved GM variety, MTR162.

At a press conference last month, the ministry's chief economist Bi Meijia said it had received applications for authorisation for the variety from the agribusiness multinational Syngenta since 2010, but it was still assessing the request.

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.