GM rice tastings: PR stunt, or public education?

More than 1,000 people have taken part in genetically modified rice tasting sessions across China this summer, as supporters hope to prove it is safe to eat

In July, internet users in six cities, including Kunming and Beijing, visited restaurants – not for a meal, but to try genetically modified (GM) rice, as part of nationwide tasting events.

Though research into GM rice was given priority by the Chinese government in 2006, many academics and the public remain unsure of its safety. A PR campaign to change public attitudes began in early May, when a microblogger using the name of “Tilling Farmer” offered to send out five bags of GM rice for the public to try. Popular science microblogger Fang Zhouzi reposted the message, and soon 200 people had requested a sample.   

The GM rice had been developed by Huazhong Agricultural University to be resistant to butterflies and moths. ‘Tilling Farmer’ was an alias of Professor Yan Jianbing, who researches molecular breeding at the university, and is a colleague of Lin Yongjun, head of the GM rice project.

After the positive response to the offer of free GM rice, Yan announced that he was planning a larger scale event in cooperation with Fang Xuanchang, editor of the pro-GM website, a site recently set-up to persuade the public that GM technology was safe.

There were 24 people at the first GM rice tasting session, held at a hotel in the Zhujiang New City area of Guangzhou. Two months later, the Beijing Science and Technology News held another tasting, at which Lin Yongjun and Chen Junshi of the Chinese Academy of Engineering Science were present. Similar events were held in five other cities, including Nanning and Kunming, bringing the tastings to public attention.

This isn’t the first PR campaign for GM rice in China. A small-scale GM tasting session was held in Beijing in May 2011, at a time when GM foods were not yet a matter of public concern.

The Golden Rice controversy in late 2012 changed the public perception of GM rice. Chinese and American researchers fed Golden Rice, developed by Swiss biotechnology firm Syngenta, to 25 elementary school students in Hengnan county, Hunan, without parental permission. At the end of the year the Chinese government said that the rice used had been imported without approval and that the case represented a failure of research ethics and standards. While the government insisted that it did not reflect on the safety of GM food, the public was unconvinced.

“Consumers and the public still have concerns about GM issues,” said Zhu Zhen, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Genetics and Developmental Biology. “Those concerns are a major obstacle to the development of the national GM industry.”

As it stands certification from the government for commercial planting has been withheld, something Fang Xuanchang believes is due to public hostility: “In China the only way to get that certification is to win over public opinion. So we hope we can change it.”

This is an edited version of an article originally published in Southern Weekend, where Yan Dingfei is a reporter and Huang Boxin an intern