For many in China, the term “genetically modified food” evokes nightmares: poisoned seeds, contaminated fields, apocryphal images of eight-legged chickens.

China and the global agricultural industry are betting billions of dollars that they can change those perceptions. They are starting with farmers like Li Kaishun.

Mr. Li is an agricultural thought leader. The 39-year-old millet, corn and peanut farmer in China’s eastern Shandong Province quickly adopts new techniques to bolster production, such as mixing pesticides with his seeds before he plants them as a way to reduce overall pesticide use. He rents land from local farmers, giving him 100 acres in a country where the average farm takes up only one-quarter of an acre.

The next innovation he wants: genetically modified crops. That view appeals to DuPont, the American seed giant, which offers Mr. Li and his family discounts on seed, pesticides and fertilizers to cultivate those views.

One thing DuPont cannot provide — though it hopes to someday — is genetically modified seeds themselves. In China, genetically modified crops are largely banned from food destined for dinner tables.

“If there is better seed and better technology, I would definitely want it,” Mr. Li said. “But I have never seen a G.M.O. seed. Neither have I heard about anyone planting one.”

China has ambitions to be a major player in genetically modified food. One of its state-run companies is vying to acquire Syngenta, the Swiss agricultural company, for $43 billion, which would make it China’s largest foreign purchase ever. It is ramping up spending on research and development and supporting a nascent homegrown industry that it hopes can someday become China’s answer to Monsanto and DuPont. In a 2013 speech, Xi Jinping, the country’s president, told his audience, “We can’t let big foreign companies dominate our G.M.O. crops market.”

Many Chinese officials see G.M.O. science as a way to bolster production in a country where large-scale farming is still uncommon — a legacy of the Communist Revolution, when land was stripped from landlords and given to peasants. China also hopes to better feed its growing and increasingly affluent population on its own.

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A researcher tests for specific genes in corn at a Syngenta Biotech Center lab in Beijing. Credit Kim Kyung Hoon/Reuters

But even if China succeeds in building a vibrant industry, it has to persuade a frightened public that genetically modified food is not another Chinese food scandal in waiting.

“I’m cautiously optimistic that will happen, but it’s still a significant challenge to address public perception of G.M. food,” said William S. Niebur, chief executive of Origin Agritech, a Chinese genetically modified seed developer and a partner with DuPont. He says that the public wants transparency, accessible information and choice, but “where we are today, the emotions continue to be stronger than facts.”

In a country where dissent is roundly discouraged, a number of activists have publicly criticized the pending Syngenta deal. Hundreds of citizens, including Qin Zhongda, a 93-year-old former minister for China’s chemical industry, signed letters to top leaders and the China National Chemical Corporation, Syngenta’s would-be buyer, saying that the Syngenta deal would lead to uncontrollable pollution of China’s food crops. They also predicted severe damage to the health of Chinese consumers, the safety of the country’s food supply and the livelihoods of Chinese farmers.

“ChemChina must stop this suicidal acquisition that will destroy the country,” one letter said.

G.M.O. food has come under further scrutiny in recent weeks after state media reported that a testing center for modified animals at the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences had faked inspection records and let unqualified people perform tests. The Ministry of Agriculture conducted an investigation into the academy after a former Ph.D. student made claims online last month about problems there.

A spate of reports on illegally planted seeds prompted Lin Xiangmin, an official in charge of safety management and intellectual property rights of G.M.O.s at the Ministry of Agriculture, to tell The Beijing Times newspaper that the department was working to make illegal planting of G.M.O. seeds a criminal offense.

For many opponents, China simply is not ready. “Safety can be achieved only with regulation,” said Cui Yongyuan, an anti-G.M.O. campaigner at the Communications University of China. “Many Chinese scientists don’t seem to understand this. They feel that safety is created in a laboratory.”

The roots of this skepticism run deep. Human tampering with food has been behind many of China’s most shocking food scandals. The tainted milk that killed six babies and injured hundreds of thousands of others stemmed from milk producers’ adding a chemical to make the milk look protein-rich. Fruit has been spiked with chemicals to make it look fresh and to stimulate growth.

Those fears, combined with China’s voluble online community, can sometimes lead to rumors. Last year, KFC, the fried-chicken chain popular in China, sued three Chinese internet companies over online accusations that it used genetically modified chickens with six wings and eight legs to feed its customers.

“One of the steps the research community has been doing is trying to extend the knowledge about the G.M.O.s to the public,” says Cao Cong, a professor at the University of Nottingham in China and the author of the forthcoming book “Genetically Modified China,” “but the public still doesn’t want to accept this kind of knowledge.”

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Michel Demare, right, chairman of Syngenta, with Ren Jianxin, chairman of the China National Chemical Corporation, known as ChemChina. ChemChina is seeking to take over Syngenta, a Swiss farm chemicals giant. Credit Michael Buholzer/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Further complicating matters, China already grows and buys plenty of genetically modified crops — just, generally, not for people. Chinese farmers grow genetically modified cotton, and meat and dairy companies buy genetically modified corn from abroad to feed pigs and cattle. G.M.O. seeds are allowed for growing papayas.

That has led to accusations that G.M.O. crops have already crept into Chinese fields. In January, the environmental group Greenpeace said it found that domestic corn crops in northeastern China contained genetically modified material. Chinese officials said they had ramped up inspections.

Unapproved G.M.O. food can be found elsewhere in China’s food supply, said Jiajun Dale Wen, an energy and environment researcher at Renmin University. For example, many papaya seeds planted in China’s southern island of Hainan are not the kind approved by the government, while genetically modified rice can be found in some fields, she said.

“In theory, China should have a supervision of G.M.O.s that is stricter than the U.S.,” Ms. Wen said. “The Ministry of Agriculture has said that they would punish every case they found. But in reality, the punishment is light.”

Many farmers remain outright opposed to using G.M.O. seeds, or just apathetic.

“The seed, pesticide and fertilizer market is kind of in a mess,” said Shi Guangzhi, a 44-year-old farmer with about 180 acres planted in corn in Bayan County, in China’s northern Heilongjiang Province.

“We don’t have the abilities to tell what is good and what is bad,” he said. “I can only learn from word of mouth which seed does well this year. Then everyone will plant this seed next year.”

Mr. Shi has little time to dream about the G.M.O. future that the government has planned. “I heard that the government doesn’t allow the growth of G.M.O. seeds. Then it will be difficult for me to sell it.”

That makes farmers like Li Kaishun, in Shandong Province, valuable to G.M.O. proponents. Although he says he does not know much yet about genetically modified seeds, he is willing to learn.

“What is G.M.O.?” he asked reporters for The New York Times. “If you say G.M.O. seed is good, can you provide me some?”

轉基因在中國:喧嘩、恐懼與爭論

香港——對於很多中國人來說,轉基因食品這個詞可以引發噩夢:有毒的種子、受到污染的農田,還有八條腿小雞的假圖片。

中國和全球農業產業投入了數十億美元,押注在可以改變這些看法上。首先是從李開順這樣的農民開始。

39歲的李開順是一位農業思想的領先者,在中國東部省份山東種植小米、玉米和花生。李開順善於迅速採用新技術來促進農業生產,例如在種植之前,他將殺蟲藥與種子混合,從而減少農藥的整體使用量。他從當地農民那裡租地,現在總共耕種著100英畝(約合600畝)地,而中國的農場平均只有四分之一英畝大。

他想採用的下一個創新就是轉基因作物。這個打算對美國種子巨頭杜邦(DuPont)很有利,於是該公司以折扣價格為李開順及其家人提供了種子、農藥和化肥,希望培養這種想法。

但杜邦無法提供轉基因種子本身——雖然它希望有一天可以提供。在中國,轉基因作物基本上是被禁止用來製作餐桌食品的。

「有更好的種子、有更好的技術肯定很需要,」李開順說。「轉基因種子咱沒見過,附近也沒聽說種的。」

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北京先正達生物技術中心實驗室,研究人員正在測試玉米中的特定基因。

中國雄心勃勃地想要成為轉基因食品的主要參與者。一家國營公司正在參與加瑞士農業公司先正達(Syngenta)的爭購戰,它出價430億美元,如果成功,就會成為中國歷史上最大的一起海外併購案。該公司也正在加大研發投入,支持一個新興的本土產業,希望能培養出中國的孟山都(Monsanto)或者杜邦。在2013年的一次演講中,國家主席習近平告訴聽眾:「我們不能讓大型外國公司主導我們的轉基因作物市場。」

很多中國官員把轉基因科學看成一種促進農業生產的方式,在中國,大規模農業生產仍然不常見,這是共產主義革命留下的產物,當時收繳了地主的土地,分配給農民。中國也希望更好地為其日益增長、日益富裕的人口提供食物。

但是,即使中國成功發展起一個充滿活力的產業,它也必須說服飽受驚嚇的公眾,讓他們相信轉基因作物不是中國的又一起食品醜聞。

「我對前景保持謹慎樂觀,但轉變公眾對轉基因食品的看法仍然是一個重大挑戰。」杜邦公司合作夥伴、中國轉基因種子開發商奧瑞金種業(Origin Agritech)的首席執行官威廉·S·倪博(William S. Niebur)說。他表示公眾希望獲得透明度,看到信息和選擇,但「眼下的情況是,感情因素的力量大過了事實」。

在中國,不同意見常常會遭到打壓,但一些活動人士對正在進行的先正達交易進行了公開批評。數以百計的公眾,包括93歲的前化工部部長秦仲達,在一封信上簽名,試圖阻止高層領導人和中國化工集團併購先正達,稱該交易將導致中國糧食作物污染失控。他們還預測,此舉會對中國消費者身體健康、國家食品供應安全和中國農民的生計造成嚴重危害。

「中國化工集團必須立即停止這場導致亡族滅種的自殺式收購,」一封信中說。

最近幾週,人們加強了對轉基因食品的關注,因為據官方媒體報導,中國農業科學院一個改良動物的測試中心偽造檢查記錄,讓不合格的人員開展測試工作。該院之前的一名博士生上個月在網上曝光了此事之後,農業部對該院進行了調查。

在一系列報導提到非法種植種子之後,農業部科教司轉基因生物安全與知識產權處處長林祥明告訴《京華時報》,該部門正在研究把非法種植轉基因作物列入刑事犯罪。

對很多反對者看來,中國根本沒有做好準備。「安全是監管出來的安全,」中國傳媒大學的反轉基因食品活動人士崔永元說。「中國的很多科學家不明白這個事,他們老覺得,安全是實驗室實驗出來的安全。」

這是一種根深蒂固的懷疑。中國很多驚人的食品醜聞背後,都是有人對食品做了手腳。比如生產商在牛奶中添加了一種化學品,使其顯得富含蛋白質,結果被污染的牛奶導致6個嬰兒死亡,給成千上萬的人帶來健康損害。還有人對水果使用化學品,讓它們看上去光鮮,或者是刺激它們生長。

除了這樣的擔憂之外,中國的網上社區也很活躍,有時可能會導致謠言的出現。去年,在中國很受歡迎的炸雞連鎖公司肯德基起訴了三家中國互聯網公司,因為它們稱肯德基給顧客食用的是轉基因雞,有六隻翅膀和八條腿。

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北京先正達生物技術中心實驗室,研究人員正在測試玉米中的特定基因。

《轉基因中國》(Genetically Modified China)一書的作者、諾丁漢大學位於中國的教授曹聰說,「研究界一直在努力向公眾傳播關於轉基因生物的知識,但是公眾仍然不想接受這種知識。」

讓情況變得更複雜的是,中國已經在種植和購買大量轉基因作物了,只不過總的來說不是用於人們食用。中國農民種植轉基因棉花,中國的肉類和乳品公司從國外購買轉基因玉米餵豬和牛。中國還允許銷售用於種植番木瓜的轉基因種子。

這引發了一些人的指控,認為轉基因作物已經潛入了中國的田間地頭。今年1月,環保組織綠色和平(Greenpeace)稱在中國東北的國內玉米作物中發現了轉基因物質。中國官員稱已加強檢查力度。

中國人民大學的能源和環境研究員文佳筠表示,在中國食品供應的其他環節也能找到未經批准的轉基因食品。她說,比如位於中國南部的海南島上種的番木瓜種子,就不是政府批准的那一種,轉基因水稻也能在一些田裡找到。

「中國對轉基因的監管理論上說比美國更嚴格,」文佳筠說。「農業部聲稱發現一起查處一起,但對違規者實質上是高高舉起,輕輕落下。」

很多農民依然強烈反對使用轉基因種子,或者只是缺乏興趣。

「種子肥料農藥,市場太混亂,」東北黑龍江省巴彥縣44歲的農民史廣智說。他種了大約180英畝(約合1100畝)的玉米。

「我們沒有鑒別能力,」他說。「哪知道哪個是好的那個是不好的。聽口碑,看錶現,今年哪個種子表現好,明年就都種,」

史廣智幾乎沒時間夢想政府規劃的轉基因生物的未來。「我感覺政府不讓種,將來賣糧也困難。」

這讓像山東的李開順這樣的農民,變得對轉基因的支持者頗為重要。儘管他說自己不太懂轉基因種子,但他願意學。

「轉基因是啥東西啊?」他問《紐約時報》的記者。「你說這個種子好,你能給提供點兒嗎?