The Ministry of Agriculture (MOA) on Thursday pledged to ensure safety of genetically modified (GM) crops amid scientists' appeals for caution in commercializing such products.
"We will develop GM technologies in strict accordance with relevant regulations and ensure the safety of GM products," Chen Xiaohua, a deputy MOA minister, told reporters on Thursday responding to questions on the import of GM corn from the US.
"China will continue its development of GM crops because this is an important strategic move for the whole nation," Chen said, adding that the ministry is drawing up plans to expand corn production to meet increasing domestic demand.
According to caixin.cn, China National Cereals, Oils and Foodstuffs Corporation imported 61,000 tons of GM corn in July 2010.
In November 2009, the MOA issued a production safety certificate to two varieties of GM rice and one of GM corn, the first such case in the country. The move sparked long-running debates about the safety of GM foods and their impact on the environment.
The three main issues surrounding GM foods according to the World Health Organization are their potential for provoking allergic reactions, transferring harmful genes to the human body and crossbreeding with other plants.
Yuan Longping, a famous agricultural scientist known as the "father of hybrid rice," has repeatedly urged the government to proceed cautiously with any move to commercialize GM crops.
"One of the major features of GM crops is their ability to resist insects, but even scientists do not know whether such an ability in these crops will have any effect on human beings," the Nanfang Daily quoted Yuan as saying on Thursday.
"So far scientists have only conducted tests on animals, which does not rule out risks for humans in the long term," he said, adding that crops that have been genetically modified to increase production might be safe.
However, Gu Xiulin, a professor with Yunnan University of Finance and Economics who studies the impact of GM crops, noted that aside from health concerns GM foods may not even help increase production.
"Western studies found that in some cases, insects and weeds became resistant to GM crops' ability to kill them, thus affecting production. There are also reports that GM foods could cause infertility in humans," Gu said.
"More alarming is that some GM foods or other commodities made from GM products have already reached the domestic market. For example, about 20 percent of corn grown in China is genetically modified," Gu said, adding that the government should adopt a more vigilant attitude toward the technology.
A spokesperson with the MOA's GM product safety department told the People's Daily in 2010 that just because GM products have received a safety certificate does not mean they can be commercialized, and strict regional and production tests are obligatory before products reach the public.
The GM organisms, also known as ‘transgenic' organisms, were developed in the 1970s. At present, genetically modified crops are grown on 134 million hectares of land worldwide.
US farmers adopted genetically engineered crops widely since their commercial introduction in 1996, notwithstanding uncertainty about consumer acceptance and economic and environmental impacts, the US Department of Agriculture said in a statement.
Currently, commercialized GM crops in the US include soy, cotton, canola, corn, Hawaiian papaya, zucchini and yellow squash, and sugar beets.
In Canada, four GM crops are under cultivation: corn, canola, soy and white sugar beet. The EU is much more cautious about the technology and has issued a series of bans on such products, the latest of which banned GM-tainted food from general sale earlier this month.
The American Academy of Environmental Medicine reported in 2009 that several animal studies indicated serious health risks associated with GM foods, including infertility, immune problems, accelerated aging, faulty insulin regulation and changes in major organs and the gastrointestinal system.
The academy asked physicians to advise patients to avoid GM foods.
Xue Dayuan, an expert on transgenosis at the Nanjing Research Institute of Environmental Sciences, told the Global Times that authorities need to set up effective risk-evaluation and management mechanisms before commercializing GM products as some GM seeds are already circulating in the country.
"It is true that the GM technology is crucial for China's agricultural development, but compared with advances in the technology, more needs to be done in terms of supervision and management," Xue said.
Citing an MOA insider, the Shenzhen Economic Daily reported that authorities would slow down its GM crops development over the next decade, especially for GM rice, wheat and soybeans, but corn might be an exception.
Zhu Shanshan contributed to this story