China will continue to promote research into genetically modified crops while maintaining strict controls on safety of the technology, a top agriculture official said on Tuesday, underscoring Beijing's cautious approach toward biotechnology.
The comments came after a major policy document, known as the "number one document," called for strengthening of GMO research and safe management of the technology, as well as educating the public on the issue.
It was the first time that the document, released early each year and focusing on agriculture, had explicity addressed the increasingly fervent debate among the Chinese public around safety of GMO foods. That prompted speculation in local media about a possible shift in the government's position.
But Han Jun, deputy head of the Communist Party's office on rural affairs, said the new document was "consistent" with current policy on biotech.
The GMO debate had become a "social problem" and people needed a more objective understanding of the technology, he said.
China has poured billions of yuan into developing GMO seeds but has not dared to permit cultivation of biotech varieties of feed and food crops, citing consumer concerns over safety.
Its position is also thought to be impacting the approval for import of genetically modified crops, which faces long delays.
The government has already made some attempts to clear up worries about GMOs, launching a national media campaign last year.
But Han said that it remained an "extremely sensitive" issue for all of Chinese society. "It's a hot topic for everyone in their daily life."
While recognizing the problem of public perception, Chinese scientists are increasingly impatient with the government's approach.
"Scientists are in a hurry, companies are in a hurry, farmers are also in a hurry. But our government departments need to speed up," Huang Dafang, research fellow and former director of the Biotechnology Research Institute at China's Academy of Agricultural Sciences told reporters last week.
He also questioned why the government had stalled commercialisation of GMO crops.
"New strains are still not being approved. Is it because of safety? No, it's because of government process."
Han added that China follows international standards on safety and management of its biotech research in areas such as genetically modified rice and corn, and said that Beijing had no choice but to continue supporting the technology.
"China, a big country with 1.3 billion people and its agricultural development facing increasingly serious environmental constraints, cannot afford to fall behind in research of GMOs."