Angel or demon, transgenic crops have become one of the "frontier technologies" that China is determined to embrace. In contrast to China's usual modesty in academic matters, mainland scientists claim that genetically modified organisms, utilising recombinant DNA technology, is among the few fields in which China can claim to be globally competitive. Genetically modified rice, in particular, is the achievement that China should be most proud of, they say. But they fear the government's persistent hesitation to commercialise their successes could make China's GM quest lose momentum. A quarter of the world's top research papers on rice have been written by Chinese researchers, said Yan Jianbing, a corn genomics researcher at Huazhong Agricultural University in Wuhan . "Agricultural biotechnology is one of the few technologies in which China is on an equal footing with the world's best," said Yan, who works at the university's laboratory of crop genetic improvement, a key GMO research facility designated by the central government. With vast funding and a big team, China was ready to bring to market an insect-resistant transgenic rice it developed on its own a decade ago, said Zhu Zhen, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Sciences' Bureau of Life Sciences and Biotechnology. But the government has chosen so far not to commercialise its GMO expertise as the technology remains controversial around the world and has triggered fierce debate at home. "Public opinion remains unfavourable for the technology, and even now, the prospect for commercialisation is unclear," Zhu said. China pumped vast funds into GMO research when global studying of the subject started in the mid-1980s, and kept pace with international research all the time, he noted. China was the first country to commercialise transgenics in the early 1990s with the introduction of virus-resistant tobacco. In the mid-1990s, China was behind only the US in planting transgenic crops, with 1.1 million hectares of such crops, or 39 per cent of the world's total, being sown in 1996. But progress slowed considerably as controversy arose at home and abroad. In the past decade, many talented researchers returned from overseas to become the pillar of China's GM research effort, Zhu said. Today, his main fear is that the government's sluggishness to commercialise these accomplishments is frustrating ambitious young scientists. "It's important to maintain an advantage in research, but to keep the technology from being commercialised means it won't be rewarded by the market. This will only make our research lose momentum," said Zhu, who is also the deputy director-general of the Chinese Society of Biotechnology. "The market will not wait," he said. "There is good stuff overseas too." According to the non-profit international organisation, the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA), a record 181.5 million hectares of GM crops were grown globally in 2014. The United States planted most, while China ranked sixth with 3.9 million hectares. Yan Jianbing said China had invested greatly in research and building a solid base of expertise. GM research was designated by the government as one of 16 major areas in which it was aiming for major breakthroughs by 2020, according to a national scientific research plan in 2008. The China Business News cited a leading scientist as saying that from 2006 to 2020 about 20 billion yuan would be devoted to GM research. Yan was optimistic that China could keep up the good work as long as the government maintained its investment, but shared Zhu's concern that China lagged others in applying the technology. "GM research, especially its application, needs to be driven by corporations, but for now the central government is doing the job, which is inconsistent with economics," he said. Dr Alan McHughen, a geneticist at the University of California, Riverside, said the healthiest approach to research was to have vigorous involvement by the public and private sectors. The public sector should concentrate on the underlying technologies, while the private sector would adapt the results of public researchers to develop commercial products for the good of society. "In this respect, China is well organised and strategic in using public funding support to encourage GM research in China to improve crops of highest importance to the country, instead of simply adopting GM crops developed elsewhere," he said. Calling China "one of the world leaders in GM agriculture", he said the country would increase agricultural productivity and environmental sustainability with such public support. William Niebur, vice-president of DuPont for crop genetics research, also saw a promising Chinese GM market. He noted that faced with an urbanising population and natural resource constraints, China had begun to move away from extensive management methods driven by large output goals and excessive agricultural input practices. "In the future, improving agricultural competitiveness will be achieved by promoting technological innovation in agriculture and mandating environmentally sustainable development," he said. "As the world's most populous nation and the largest grain consumer, China has stepped up efforts to ensure its food safety and security, as well as integrating new agricultural technologies to increase land productivity." But much concern remains as views on GM agriculture vary greatly among ordinary people and even government officials. In the government's first policy directive this year, issued earlier this month, authorities called for improvements in safety management and public education on GM crops. "After the frequent reports of illegal planting and circulation of GM crops in the past decade due to slack supervision, the authorities have apparently started to realise it's a serious problem," said Fang Lifeng, formerly a biosafety campaigner for environment group Greenpeace and now an independent observer. "It was the first time public education was brought up in the document, which actually started in the second half of last year," he said. Led by the Ministry of Agriculture, various departments have increased their propaganda about GM technology to create a favourable environment for the commercialisation of GM crops. "So I expect more publicity machines are going to voice support for GM research in the future," said Fang.