A debate has raged around the potential risks and benefits of genetically modified (GM) foods for the last 20 years.
Friends of the Earth says that although food from 12 GM crops has been approved for sale in the EU, most UK supermarkets and food manufacturers have removed GM ingredients from their produce.
The arguments for GM
Most existing genetically modified crops have been developed to improve yield through resistance to plant pests or increased tolerance to herbicides.
Professor Jonathan Jones, a senior scientist at The Sainsbury Laboratory and an expert on how plants resist disease, was featured on the Panorama program.
“Producing enough food is hard, and currently there’s a lot of control of disease and pests by spraying agrochemicals,” he said.
“GM opponents have this idealistic notion that we can have a perfect, utterly clean way of doing things, but this idealism isn’t helpful because farming is a very pragmatic business. You’ve got to control weeds, so you need herbicides, and there are a lot of objections to them, but the question is, what’s the least bad way to do it?
“Anything that gets regulatory approval is completely safe, or at least as safe as its non-GM counterpart.”
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Beijing’s prestigious Tsinghua University and two other Chinese colleges will carry out the survey, said Jin Jianbin, a professor at Tsinghua’s School of Journalism and Communication. The poll, sponsored by the government, will be carried out in tandem with a campaign on social media to broadcast basic knowledge on GMO technology, which is widely misunderstood in the country, Jin said.
China is the world’s fourth-largest grower of GMO cotton and the top importer of soybeans, most of which are genetically modified and used for cooking oil and animal feed for pigs and chickens. But public concern over food safety issues and skepticism about the effects of consuming GMO foods have made the government reluctant to introduce the technology for staple crops.
A 2012 trial of so-called Golden Rice — a yellow GMO variant of the grain that produces beta-carotene — caused a public storm after reports that the rice was fed to children without the parents being aware that it was genetically modified.
The national survey aims to discover what the public’s concerns are so that the government can resolve the confusion, Jin said. “If the government pushes ahead before the public is ready to accept the technology, it would be embarrassing — like offering a pot of half-cooked rice to eat.”
Producers of GMO crops claim they offer improved yields, enhanced nutritional value and resistance to drought, frost and insects. Critics have raised concerns over safety and potential adverse ecological effects. Last year, the U.S., the world’s largest producer of GMO crops, mandated that food makers label products with modified ingredients. EU lawmakers this month objected to imports of herbicide-resistant strains of corn and cotton.
China itself has spent billions on research of its own GMO technology over the past decade, but has not allowed commercial production of grains, with scientists citing public resistance as part of the reason for the delay. China has said that it will allow commercial production of modified corn and soybeans by 2020.
Government officials have said that the country would introduce the use of the technology first on feed grains after cotton. China’s corn consumption is estimated to grow nearly 20 percent in the coming decade on demand for protein-rich meat and dairy products.