Since 2000, genetically-modified potatoes, papayas and soybean oil have all adorned the shelves of this city's supermarkets. But most of the shoppers reaching for them have had little or no idea they were consuming genetically-modified (GM) foods.

Unlike in India, where Bt brinjal has ignited stormy debate, the spread of GM foods in China has taken place away from the gaze of the public. But now, as China mulls giving the green light to GM rice — the staple food crop — there is growing public concern about how the safety and choice of consumers may be affected.

GM rice will likely find its way to Chinese dinner-tables by 2013, according to Huang Dafang, Director of the Biotechnology Research Institute of the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences, and a leading agricultural scientist here.

In November, the Chinese Government granted safety certificates for the domestic production of two varieties of GM rice and one variety of GM maize. Mr. Huang said on Wednesday said it would take “at least three years to achieve commercialisation”, but he was “confident” approval would be granted.

The government hopes disease-resistant crops will help address growing food shortages, with China increasingly relying on food imports to feed its 1.3 billion population. Chinese scientists say GM rice and maize are as safe as non-GM varieties, and would expand production.

GM maize and soybean are already widely consumed in China, as they are in the United States.

However, production here is not entirely dependent on private biotechnology companies, such as Monsanto, as is the case in the U.S. — and part of the reason for the opposition to Bt brinjal in India.

The ruling Communist Party's Central Committee last month listed expanding the production of GM foods as one of its policy priorities for the coming year.

In 2008, the government sanctioned $3 billion to develop home-grown GM products. But a first-of-its-kind survey on public perception has found rising concern among the Chinese with rice going the GM way. More than 84 per cent of 50,000 Chinese surveyed by the official People's Daily newspaper said “they would not risk their health” by buying GM foods.

But even Chinese opposed to GM foods have been unknowingly consuming them this past decade, underscoring the difficulties of regulating the consumption in large, often unorganised, retail markets such as China and India.

Under the Ministry of Agriculture's guidelines, all products containing GM ingredients should be labelled when sold. But in practice, this is rarely the case in China.

Consumption

As in India, most Chinese purchase their vegetables in small, neighbourhood markets, and the government has found it unfeasible to ensure foods are labelled in these retail outlets. GM foods are also available at cheaper prices here, which has helped increase their consumption.

Fang Lifeng, a spokesman for Greenpeace China, said the government should be particularly “prudent” on GM rice in light of these factors. Some scientists have also voiced their concerns given its wide consumption here as a staple food.

“If the world has not reached a consensus on GM food safety, it would be too proactive and risky to commercialise such crops on a largescale,” Zheng Fengtian, vice-dean of the Rural and Agricultural Development Institute at the People's University of China, told State-run Xinhua news agency.

The government, however, has already gone ahead with its plans. Zhang Qifa, a professor at Huazhong Agricultural University, said GM rice crops were already being planted in Hubei and Shandong provinces on a trial basis, and were “expected to be served at Chinese dinner tables within five years”.

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