Chinese research funding into genetically-modified organisms (GMO) has fallen by 80 percent over the last four years, a member of a parliamentary advisory body said, as Beijing faces public unease over a technology it has been promoting to boost food security.
The government has urged its scientists to take a global lead in GMO, although it has been reluctant to commercialize GMO crops given public concerns over health risks.
Safety approvals for pest-resistant Bt rice as well as phytase corn, designed as a more environmentally friendly feed for pigs, were completed as early as 2009. But the world's largest buyer of imported GMO soy and cotton has not approved commercial production of GMO grains.
It has also delayed approval of new strains of imported GMO corn such as the MIR162 variant developed by Syngenta.
China's spending on GMO research has fallen to around 400 million yuan ($65.38 million) in 2013, down from as much as 2 billion yuan in 2010, Ke Bingsheng, president of the China Agricultural University, said in an address to Premier Li Keqiang during last week's annual session of parliament.
Ke said agriculture technology, particularly GMO, was crucial for a rapidly urbanising China to increase food production from its shrinking farmlands and water resources.
"GMO technology is extremely important to increase yields and efficiency," Ke said, according to a transcript of his speech made available by his university.
Beijing agreed an initial budget of 26 billion yuan to fund GMO development under a 12-year programme launched in 2008.
Ke did not say why the funding had fallen.
Huang Dafang, a researcher with Biotechnology Research Institute of the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences, said: "It depends a lot on leadership: if they have wavered, the funding could have been cut, although we need to verify the data."
The safety of genetically modified food was in the spotlight at the annual session of the National People's Congress, China's largely rubber-stamp legislature.
Agriculture minister Han Changfu said that he himself ate genetically modified food, given that GMO soy was already in the food chain. He said, however, the commercialisation of staple foods would proceed with caution and in the first stage only GMO cotton and then feed grain would be planted.
Former television presenter and anti-GMO campaigner, Cui Yongyuan, wrote in a proposal to the advisory body, the China People's Political Consultative Conference, that GMO had not improved yields, was unsafe and also threatened China's food security by handing control over to multinational companies. He called on the government to ban seed firms from doing research and stop commercialising GMO grains.
Cui, also a member of the advisory body to parliament, told reporters that GMO grains had been illegally planted in at least four Chinese provinces and he said he has asked the agriculture ministry to improve supervision.
Ke said public debate over the technology had become muddled.
"GMO is a scientific issue, but it has become complicated. No countries have the same misunderstandings (as China) over the issue," Ke said in his speech.
The agriculture minister said China currently only permitted the growing of GMO cotton and papaya.