WUHAN, CHINA—If anyone is under the impression that the Chinese public is ready to embrace genetically modified (GM) crops, they are mistaken. At a hastily arranged session at a symposium here earlier this week, members of the general public berated and quizzed scientists on concerns ranging from the legitimate to the bizarre.
The Chinese government is pushing hard on GM. Last year, China launched  a $3.5 billion R&D effort on GM crops, and in 2008 Premier Wen Jiabao declared, "To solve the food problem, we have to rely on big science and technology measures, rely on biotechnology, rely on GM." Buoyed by high-level support, the agriculture ministry last November issued safety certificates to two rice varieties bearing a protein from Bacillus thuringiensis that's toxic to insect pests.
But the Chinese public is pushing back. A group of protestors descended on the "Communication and Dialogue of Agribiotech Symposium" at Huazhong Agricultural University on 11 October, prompting organizers to set up a side session that afternoon between members of the general public and scientists.
It soon became evident that scientists face an enormous task in communicating accurate information about GM crops. "If I eat GM rice, wings will grow in my body, correct?" asked an elementary school student. An adult then posed an only slightly less farfetched question, expressing his fear—fed by sensational articles in Chinese newspapers—that GM rice will suppress sperm levels and lead to "subjugation and genocide" in China. "We only want to live healthily, why must you harm us?" he asked.
Experts sought to reassure the audience that consumption of GM crops has been linked neither to growth of human wings nor to suppressed sperm levels. But they also acknowledged that there are legitimate questions about the long-term safety of GM foods, both to human health and the environment, that are the subject of ongoing research. "I cannot say that GM food is totally safe," says Zhu Zhen of the Institute of Genetics and Developmental Biology of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS).
Although the encounter yielded little consensus, scientists appreciated the chance to try to set the record straight. The onus is now on science communicators to provide accurate information and "play a role as a bridge" between scientists and the public, says symposium organizer Jia Hepeng, chief editor of CAS's Science News biweekly magazine. But with sentiments in China running strong against GM crops, and GM rice in particular, Huazhong's Zhang Qifa, a leading rice researcher, says that he can't predict how long it will take for GM rice to win approval for commercial planting. "I have tried my best for research, but I can't control others," he says.