By Dominique Patton
BEIJING (Reuters) - China's government has kicked off a media campaign in support of genetically modified crops, as it battles a wave of negative publicity over a technology it hopes will play a major role in boosting its food security.
The agriculture ministry earlier this week announced it would try to educate the public on GMO via TV, newspapers and the Internet.
It hopes to stifle anti-GMO sentiment that has gathered momentum in the wake of incidents such as reports that genetically-modified rice had been illegally sold at a supermarket in the center of the country.
Beijing has been a long-time proponent of GMOs, which it sees as broadly safe and as potentially key in helping feed the world's largest population.
But critics have alleged the technology could pose health risks, and while China allows imports of some GMO crops it is yet to permit domestic cultivation.
China has imported millions of tonnes of GMO soybeans each year for the past decade to feed the world's largest stock of farmed pigs and to produce around 40 percent of the county's vegetable oil needs. China consumes around a third of the world's soybeans, and snaps up roughly 65 percent of all imports each year.
"(We will create) a social atmosphere which is beneficial for the healthy development of the genetically-modified industry," the agriculture ministry said in a statement.
A stream of negative reports this year on certain biotech foods, has dragged on already-slow progress toward domestic cultivation and may have played a role in curbing imports of some crops.
The discovery of a strain of genetically modified corn that had not been approved by Beijing in some U.S. shipments to China wreaked havoc in the grains market, with trader Cargill [CARG.UL] estimating losses of more than $90 million as a result.
The discoveries also triggered lawsuits against Syngenta, the developer of the unapproved corn variety.
The country has also suspended the import approval process for a genetically modified soybean variety, citing "low public acceptance" of GMO food, according to two people familiar with the matter.
China has spent billions of yuan developing its own GMO crops and approved two pest-resistant varieties of rice and a biotech corn for commercialization in 2009. But, wary of strong opposition to the GMO technology, never proceeded to cultivation. The safety certificates on the products expired last month.
In comments from a speech made months ago but only published this week, Chinese president Xi Jinping urged the industry to be bold in competition with foreign GMO developers.
(Additional reporting by Niu Shuping; Editing by Gavin Maguire and Joseph Radford)