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Celebrity feud ramps up GM food debate

2013-12-26 10:10 Global Times Web Editor: Li Yan

The recent public debate on genetically modified (GM) food in Chinese society has been greatly intensified, attracting the attention of people from all backgrounds and upgrading discussions from a health issue to one of national security.

The debate has heated up since Cui Yongyuan, a well-known former China Central Television (CCTV) host, claimed he spent 500,000 yuan ($82,342) out of his own pocket to travel to the US to shoot a documentary investigating US people's attitude toward GM food and its controversy in US academic circles.

This follows his war of words on GM food with Fang Zhouzi, an expert in chemical biology and a famous anti-fraud activist, who supports GM food being used to feed China, saying that people in many Western countries such as the US have been eating GM food for years and there should be no worries over its safety.

Cui's investigation found the US public eats GM food without having much knowledge of the technology and US mainstream scientists do not agree on the safety of GM food, the China Youth Daily reported.

Economic Weekly, a Beijing-based magazine, released a report on GM food in the US on Wednesday, saying that they reached a different conclusion from Cui's, which has further stirred the debate.

The war between the two celebrities is fiercely underway, with Cui claiming that his resignation from CCTV paves the way for fighting with Fang.

People from various fields are taking sides and expressing their ideas on GM food. Hundreds of artists organized an anti-GM food activity in Beijing's 798 Art District in November, while Land of Utopia, a bookstore and conservative website advocating the thoughts of Chairman Mao Zedong, said it's a conspiracy orchestrated by Western countries to stop the Chinese reproducing.

Peng Guangqian, a major general at the People's Liberation Army Academy of Military Science, also stepped in by publishing an article in October saying that GM food hardly increases the yield of crops.

Peng also accused Western companies of trying to monopolize the Chinese seed and crop markets, and said China shouldn't risk leaving the issue of feeding its huge population in the hands of other people.

"Public opinion on GM food has been misguided for political purposes to resist the US, or on economic purposes as some see GM food as business competitors," Fang told the Global Times, noting that all these "rumors" should be clarified by the government, which has been taking a very cautious or even negative approach on addressing public opinion.

Cui holds the attitude that there are controversies on the safety of GM food and people should be given an opportunity to choose whether they want to eat GM food.

Regardless, Cui and Fang's quarrel is heating up.

"Scientists will be able to peacefully conduct academic discussion and exchange views only after Fang is rooted out," Cui told the Global Times Wednesday.

"It's the fierce public debate on GM food that pushes Cui to get so aggressive in the quarrel, since Cui is not totally anti-GM food and his point of view is quite moderate," Luo Yunbo, a food science expert at China Agricultural University, told the Global Times.

He noted that public debate has extended from the basic concept of safety to other issues, due to the complicated relationship between the interest groups behind it, such as those who sell organic food or overseas organizations who profit from exporting GM food to China.

"Another important reason is the government does not have a good reputation among the people, which easily casts doubt on the things that the government is advocating," Luo said.

Luo said that while strong public reaction makes the government reluctant to take action to address the issue, it should launch scientific popularization of GM food among the public to nurture an atmosphere for rational discussion.

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