China seeks to soothe concerns over illegal GM crops

BEIJING (Reuters) - China’s tough supervision of unapproved genetically modified (GM) crops will allow for commercialization of such foods in the future, said an agriculture ministry official this week, defending a recent crackdown on illegally grown GM corn.

China has spent billions on research of biotech crops, but it has not yet approved the planting of any GM varieties of staple food crops amid deep-seated consumer opposition.

It plans to introduce GM corn and soybeans within the next five years, however, a step that would lead to a huge increase in global production of genetically modified crops.

Some farmers have recently been found growing GM corn illegally, triggering a strong response from the government to shore up already low consumer trust in its ability to handle food safety issues.

Reporting of such incidents threatens to further polarize public opinion, researchers said at a seminar on Thursday, even as the ministry official defended the government’s approach to “severely punish” each incident.

Media reports typically suggest that genetically modified foods are harmful, said Hu Ruifa, professor at the Beijing Institute of Technology, adding that both news publishers and local governments needed to be better educated on the science behind GM crops and foods.

“The impact on consumers is really terrible,” said Hu Ruifa, professor at the Beijing Institute of Technology, referring to media coverage of an incident in Shaanxi province.

In August, almost 600 acres of GM corn were uprooted by authorities in Shaanxi, while in Xinjiang and Gansu provinces more than 1,000 mu (163 acres) of corn was destroyed last year, a ministry official has said.

Public acceptance of biotechnology is one of the key challenges to the future introduction of GM crops in China, and despite attempts by the government to persuade consumers of the safety of such foods, opinions remain highly polarized.

Agriculture minister Han Changfu has tried to assuage fears, telling reporters earlier this year that GM crops, planted illegally or not, did not threaten consumer health.

Zhang Xianfa, deputy head of the agriculture ministry’s science and education department, told reporters at the seminar that the government will continue to punish people responsible for illegal planting.

“Development of the GMO industry and supervision of GMOs is complementary, mutually supportive,” he said.

Zhang also sought to downplay concerns that the illegal planting was more widespread than the government has said.

“Illegal planting of GMOs is sporadic,” he said. There is “no excessive planting.”

Reporting by Dominique Patton; Editing by Tom Hogue