BEIJING - Since she became a mother three years ago, Ms Du Lihua has used only organic virgin olive oil to cook her daughter's food even though it costs up to five times more than soyabean oil, which she used to buy.
"Most of the soyabean oil in China is made from genetically modified (GM) beans, and I'm afraid GM food can lower immune resistance or has other negative side effects," said the human resources trainer in her 30s. She supports a group of parents in Beijing who have lobbied the authorities since 2010 to ban GM cooking oil in school canteens.
Fierce resistance from not just mothers like Ms Du but also the public - almost 80 per cent of 100,000 respondents in an online poll late last year opposed genetic modification - has turned China from one of the world's biggest investors in this field until 2010 into one of the most conservative consumers of this new technology.
This comes amid a spate of recent food safety scandals that have made the public more receptive to unfounded claims by opponents such as People's Liberation Army Major-General Peng Guangqian that GM food is "highly linked to cancer and infertility".
In an editorial in the Global Times daily last year, he portrayed Western GM food imports as a potential tool to undermine China's food sufficiency and surreptitiously introduce dangerous food elements into the country.
But proponents of GM technology insist that China needs to stay ahead in the global race to develop and utilise such technologies to protect its national interests.
Last July, 61 scientists petitioned Beijing to "wait no longer" to promote industrialised cultivation of GM rice, arguing that without commercial cultivation of new strains, China's research would suffer and lag behind countries like the United States.
Agriculture Minister Han Changfu - who last month told state media that he himself consumes GM soyabean oil to dispel public concerns about its safety - has repeatedly stressed the benefits of GM technology in improving China's crop yields.
For instance, GM cotton has boosted efficiency and income for farmers while drastically cutting the use of pesticides, he told China Daily last month.
Some analysts also argue that China's aim of self-sufficiency in food is being derailed by water and land pollution that has shrunk the amount of arable land, so Beijing needs to boost crop yield through GM technology to ensure it can feed its 1.3 billion people.
"The increasingly affluent population is expected to consume a lot of food, especially meat, and the government cannot afford not to pay attention to growing or importing higher-yielding GM crops," said Beijing-based life sciences consultant Kenneth Wang.
Mr Chan Wai-Shin, HSBC director of climate change strategy for the Asia-Pacific, noted that "China is keen to develop drought-resistant, heat-resistant and pest-resistant strains". He is co-author of a new HSBC report entitled No Water, No Food which argues that China's increasing focus on food safety could lead to higher food imports.
But Beijing will have to first overcome public scepticism about the way it ensures the safety of food produced by GM technology before it can push ahead with new agri-technology advances.
Ms Du says her distrust of GM crops, even those approved by the authorities, has only deepened following news reports last week that the Hainan provincial government delayed confirming it had destroyed 12 strains of illegally planted GM corn and cotton out of 15 crop samples under investigation.
The news sparked a public outcry over the authorities' lack of transparency, with state media and well-known TV show host Cui Yongyuan demanding an explanation from top officials. Just a month ago, Mr Han, the agriculture minister, insisted that the government "will not tolerate" any illegal planting of GM crops.
Only GM strains of cotton and papaya can be cultivated in China for commercial purposes, while import certificates are granted for GM strains of soyabean, corn, rapeseed, cotton and beet to be brought into the country as raw materials for domestic processing, he added.
The low prices of GM imports like soyabean - which has a higher oil extraction rate than local produce - have also made it more popular in China over time.
Mr Li Junshi, 39, is becoming more open to affordable GM food but readily admits that he is "still scared of it".
"Our government can research and develop new GM strains, but it absolutely must eliminate all unsafe elements," said the Beijingbased IT executive.
"But the critical issue is, how to ensure this?"
GM proponents say there are no easy answers, especially after the Hainan debacle.
But what is clear is that Chinese scientists cannot simply rely on logical arguments to try to resolve an emotional debate on the risks of GM staple foods, said Tsinghua University professor Jiang Jingsong.
"There is a need to engage both rationality and feeling, to listen intuitively... and have the wisdom to (address concerns) related to religion and superstitious beliefs (about GM foods)."
Cuts in GM imports, research spending
China has significantly scaled back imports of genetically modified (GM) crops as well as efforts to develop this biotechnology at home in recent years, amid strong resistance from the public.
Since November, China has rejected more than one million tonnes of corn imports from the US on the grounds that they were GM strains.
It has also dragged its feet on approving a new MIR162 strain of corn developed by US company Syngenta.
A top agricultural official had told Reuters that the strain could be given the regulatory green light by June. But on April 4, the Chinese authorities clarified that the evaluation would continue until the second half of this year.
China's moves have been described by some analysts as fodder for the next major Sino-US trade dispute, while the American Chamber of Commerce has slammed China's approval process for GMO grains as "overly political", "unpredictable and non-transparent".
Meanwhile, GM research spending has dropped to about 400 million yuan (S$80.4 million) for the whole of last year from as much as two billion yuan in 2010, according to China Agricultural University professor Ke Bingsheng. Last month, he urged Premier Li Keqiang to reverse the shrinking GMO research spending.
This article was published on April 14 in The Straits Times.
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