Caixin
Jan 05, 2021 06:59 PM
POLITICS & LAW

China Signals More Support for Genetically Modified Crops to Ensure Food Supplies Don’t Run Short

China should pursue innovative seed technologies to guarantee food security, a high-level agriculture official said.
China should pursue innovative seed technologies to guarantee food security, a high-level agriculture official said.

China should pursue innovative seed technologies to guarantee food security, a high-level agriculture official has said, another indication that the world’s second-largest seed market is priming to increase its reliance on genetically modified (GM) crops.

New technologies are “the basic way” to ensure that the world’s most populous nation has enough food to eat while “raising the quality, efficiency and competitiveness of agricultural products,” said Zhang Wen, an inspector in the science and technology education office of the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs.

His comments come after Chinese leaders agreed at a key economic conference last month to “resolve seed and arable land issues” this year through “respect for science, strict regulation and the orderly promotion of industrial applications for biological breeding,” a statement widely seen as tacit support for GM strains.

Chinese officials and scientists have long touted GM crops as a buffer against food scarcity. But they have struggled to convince consumers, many of whom worry that the strains may harm their health and the environment. Few GM products in China have achieved widespread commercialization.

Speaking last week at an industry event, Zhang said global breeding trends show that biotechnology “will effectively reduce the labor costs of agricultural production, reduce pesticide use and cut losses due to disasters,” easing pressure on natural resources while improving the crops’ quality and nutritional value.

China should strengthen its seed industry by pushing “representative” breeding techniques adopted in many developed economies, including GM technology and gene editing, he added.

At the same meeting, Li Jiayang, an expert in biological heredity and a member of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, said the United States and Europe still held an advantage over China in some crucial gene-editing technologies, but the Asian giant was making rapid gains in applying certain such methods to plants.

“As long as our country is free to explore biological breeding, we aren’t worried that these technologies will be monopolized,” Li said.

GM plants are typically produced by inserting new DNA into plant cells and growing them in a tissue culture. The seeds the mature plants produce inherit the new DNA. Farmers worldwide have used GM crops for decades to increase yields, but public opinion of the practice in many countries remains fraught over perceived threats to health and the environment, among other issues.

Chinese officials have long praised GM as a means of guaranteeing food security. The country is home to around 20% of the world’s population, but only contains about 7% of its arable land.

The world’s second-largest economy will have to maintain a “tight balance” in the medium to long term as it continues to face persistent challenges like regional water shortages, frequent floods and droughts and crop pests, Zhang said at the event.

The government’s most recent five-year plan, which shaped policy through 2020, detailed (link in Chinese) major industrial GM projects including new strains of insect-resistant cotton and corn as well as herbicide-resistant soybeans.

But the domestic industry has been slow to commercialize. Last year, China issued biosafety certificates to three new GM crops, the first batch to gain clearance in a decade.

Chinese consumers also appear unconvinced by GM foods. A survey published in 2018 in the peer-reviewed journal Nature found that just 12% of more than 2,000 respondents “supported” GM foods compared with 41% who “opposed” them.

Nonetheless, industry leaders have high hopes that the next five-year plan, which will run until 2025, will spur greater commercialization in the sector.

“We believe the development of biotechnology is inevitable, that it is an important means of ensuring food security and that it is safe as long as it is a strictly approved product used under prescribed conditions,” said Xue Li, the vice president of Greater China government and industry affairs at Corteva Inc., the New York-listed former agricultural unit of global chemical giant DowDuPont Inc., in an interview with Caixin last month.

Contact reporter Matthew Walsh (matthewwalsh@caixin.com) and editor Michael Bellart (michaelbellart@caixin.com)

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