Research and commercialization of genetically modified organisms (GMO) are expected to gain momentum in China after years of GM crop decline amid public safety concerns.
The "No.1 Central Document of 2015", jointly issued by the Communist Party of China Central Committee and State Council on Sunday, states clearly that more effort will be put into studying GMOs, supervising their safety and educating the public about them.
China has seen falling agricultural productivity in recent years thanks to surging production costs, shortage of agricultural resources, excessive exploitation and worsening pollution.
The decline has prompted more imported food and raised concerns about future food supply, the document said.X Though controversial, the development of the GMO technology has long been considered an effective way to increase yields on marginal lands. China has only 7 percent of the world's arable land but has to feed 22 percent of the world's population.
As a country with a population of 1.3 billion, restrictions of environmental resources, especially land, are getting more serious.
"We cannot lag behind others in the GMO research", said Han Jun, deputy head of the central office for agricultural work.
"Our GMO market should not be saturated by foreign brands," he said at a news briefing on Tuesday.
Currently, only GM cotton and papaya are allowed to be grown commercially in China, with GM staple foods prohibited from being grown.But the country is a major importer of GM farm produce, including soybeans, rapeseed, cotton and corn.
China imported more than 71 million tonnes of soybeans in 2014, the bulk of which were GMOs.
China encourages its scientists to grasp the "commanding heights" of GMO technologies, Han said.
SHRINKING GMO GROWTH
Fierce resistance from the public has turned China from one of the world's biggest investors in this field into one of the most conservative consumers of the technology.
According to a poll by the Public Opinion Research Laboratory of Shanghai Jiao Tong University last year, less than one percent of the 1,050 respondents fully accepted the GM food. About 33 percent of them said they would not accept GM products and 36 percent were concerned about their safety.
China's genetically modified GM crop planting areas have continued to decline since late the 1990s.
Between 1997 and 2001, China encouraged the application of insect-resistant GM cotton and was the fourth largest GM crop grower globally. But its status was surpassed by Brazil and India in 2003 and 2006 respectively, said Huang Dafang, a researcher with the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences.
Chinese farmers grew 3.9 million hectares of GM cotton in 2014, down around 300,000 hectares from the previous year and the country remained the sixth largest GM crop grower globally, according to a study done by the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications.
The funding on major GM seed cultivation programs was cut to 400 million yuan (65 million U.S. dollars) in 2013 from 2 billion yuan in 2010, according to Ke Bingsheng, president of the China Agricultural University.
Ye Shuifeng, assistant researcher with the Shanghai Agrobiological Gene Center, says he has no special funds for GMO research like he did in the past.
"It is high time the country stressed the speeding up of GMO research, which will consolidate the confidence of us researchers," said Ye.
There have been few breakthroughs in Chinese GM research in recent years, quite different from many countries overseas, said Ye.
"If we remain in a standstill, we risk our strategic safety in seed and food," he added.
China has been strict on GM research and production since the Regulations on Administration of Agricultural GMO Safety were implemented in 2001.
In December, the Ministry of Agriculture (MOA) reiterated its stance on the issue, saying a line must be drawn between research and production.
"We need to be daring on scientific research and innovation, but very prudent on production," said MOA spokesman Bi Meijia.
Currently, only two GM rice species hold MOA safety certificates and neither are allowed to be grown for commercial purposes.
However, some farmers secretly plant GM rice and some of the produce is sold in supermarkets in central China's Hubei Province, which damages the public's fragile trust for GM products.
Some soybean manufacturers intentionally procured GM bean pulp at lower costs, said a salesman of a food and oil company in the northern port city of Qinhuangdao on condition of anonymity.
According to regulations, those who illegally grow GM crops will be fined less than 50,000 yuan, which is only a minor deterrent, said Wu Qiongze, an official with the Hainan Provincial Agriculture Department.
Recent food scandals have made the public more receptive to unfounded claims and rumors that GMO food could lead to infertility or other health problems.
Lack of public knowledge contributes to the GMO controversy, said Jiang Hua, head of the Hainan Provincial Agriculture Department.
Experts cannot convince the public that GM foods are safe and the anti-GM groups cannot find evidence to prove they are harmful, said Jiang.
Some enterprises take advantage of the public's fear, promoting their products while demoning the GM products.
"For example, peanut oil has no commercial GM crops in China but the enterprises label their products as 'non-GM food', which misleads consumers and aggravates the industry rat race," said MOA spokesman Bi Meijia.
Cheng Tongshun, professor from the Zhou Enlai School of Government with Nankai University, called for increasing the public awareness of GM products through dissemination of knowledge and public discussion.