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[BEIJING] Scientists in China have been given government funding to discuss genetically modified (GM) crops with the public following protests against the technology.

The ministry of agriculture has made available 2.6 million yuan (US$400,000) since late last year, and some communication on GM crop science has now started.

Buoyed by high-level support from China's premier, Wen Jiabao, the ministry had issued safety certificates in late 2009 for GM strains of rice and maize, which are now in trials.

But ensuing anti-GM sentiments from the public surprised the government and GM experts. In March 2010, many Chinese scholars signed a public petition asking the agriculture ministry to withdraw the safety licences, and more recently a communication event revealed people's fears about GM crops.

China is keen to promote GM research, which it sees as leading to a way of feeding its growing population. Premier Wen Jiabao said in 2008: "Solving the food security problem should rely on big science and technology, on biotechnology and transgenic technology".

The government launched a key project on GM crops in 2008 with research funding of almost 30 billion yuan (US$4.6 billion) over 15 years, and discussions are taking place on how much of this will be available for science communication.

For China's 12th Five-Year Programme for China's Economic and Social Development (2011–2015), nearly 10 million yuan (US$1.5 million) will be available for GM risk evaluation, some of which will go towards communication.

"I hope the budget for GM public communication, which is necessary for promoting GM crops, will be higher [than existing funds]," said Lin Min, a member of the ministry of agriculture's GM safety committee and director of the Biotechnology Research Institute at the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences.

"As scientists, we have a responsibility to communicate with the public directly," said Lin.

"We have already started communicating with the public. But the public communication funding is not sufficient for organising all the needed activities, such as lectures, discussions, writing articles and answering the worried public's questions on GM and its safety."

Since the safety certificate for rice was issued, the GM rice research team leader, Zhang Qifa, a professor at Huazhong Agricultural University in Wuhan, has been receiving daily emails from both individuals and non-governmental organisations asking him not to promote the commercialisation GM crops.

"I understand them," Zhang said, adding that the emails are not directed at him personally but reveal that people do not understand GM foods.

"But I do not think GM food has any added risk compared with traditional food," he said. "It is even safer because of the greatly reduced use of pesticide in the case of insect resistant rice."

"Nobody can say GM rice and maize are definitely safe, although we can't say they are definitely dangerous," said Liu Bing, professor at the Institute of Science, Technology and Society of Tsinghua University, who signed the petition last year.

But he added: "If we find out the GM rice is harming people's health after it has been rolled out, that will be too late."