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    China Seeks Public Opinion on GMO Corn Approval, Gets an Earful

    The Chinese public has long been wary of genetically modified crops despite little scientific evidence of food safety risks.

    Chinese people may be more averse to genetically modified foods than most, but domestic media outlets are hoping to change that following the country’s first proposed biosafety approvals for GMO crops in a decade.

    In a statement Monday, China’s Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs (MARA) said it is soliciting public opinion on a list of 192 genetically modified plant species — including two strains of corn and one strain of soybean — that are awaiting biosafety certification. The public feedback period will conclude after 15 days, on Jan. 20.

    The soybean species SHZD32-01, which is especially suitable for cultivation in southern China, was developed by Shanghai Jiao Tong University. The two GMO corn species, meanwhile, can be grown in China’s colder northern provinces. The DBN9936 corn species was developed by Beijing Dabeinong Biotechnology Co. Ltd., and the “double-stacked 12-5” species was co-developed by Hangzhou Ruifeng Biotechnology Co. Ltd. and Zhejiang University.

    In the days since, several major state-controlled media outlets have published articles explaining the science behind GMOs in an effort to assuage the public’s fears.

    China began researching genetically modified crops in the 1980s. MARA approved insect-resistant cotton and disease-resistant papaya for commercial production in 1997 and 2006, respectively, and greenlit GMO soybeans, corn, canola, cotton, and sugar beets as for import to the Chinese market.

    In 2009, MARA issued biosafety certificates for a genetically modified corn species and two GMO rice species, though none were later approved for commercial production. In early 2018, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved a genetically modified strain of rice developed by Chinese researchers as commercially viable, though its developers said at the time that large-scale production in China would not be possible without new policies to grease the wheels.

    Monday’s news from MARA hasn’t been enthusiastically received by all, with many on Chinese social media expressing concerns about the potential health and safety risks of GMOs. Some netizens have called for a boycott on GMO foods, while others have questioned the scientific basis for such skepticism.

    The Chinese public’s fears of adverse health effects from GMOs have been stoked over the years by high-profile figures like Cui Yongyuan, a former televisions presenter and outspoken anti-GMO campaigner who is now perhaps best known for exposing the A-list actor Fan Bingbing’s fraudulent contract in 2018.

    Many scientists have also spoken out over the years and tried to reassure the public that China’s current policy framework for assessing GMO foods is sufficient to guarantee their safety.

    Wu Kongming, chairman of China’s biosafety committee overseeing agricultural GMOs, told Xinhua earlier this week that any genetically modified foods approved for the domestic market would be safe, and that the environmental risks of commercially grown GMO crops can be effectively controlled.

    For over 20 years, Wu said, billions of people in 70 countries and regions around the world have consumed genetically modified products without a single scientifically confirmed food safety problem.

    Genetically altered crops must receive a production certificate from MARA before they can be commercially grown in China, and all GMO foods must be clearly labeled as such when sold to consumers.

    Also on Monday, MARA published a list of 12 GMOs that have been approved for import until December 2022, including an insect-resistant strain of soybean developed by U.S.-based company Dow AgroSciences LLC, a subsidiary of Dow Chemical Company.

    Editor: David Paulk.

    (Header image: Ships unload imported soybeans at a harbor in Nantong, Jiangsu province, March 28, 2012. Tuchong)