GENET archive


6-Regulation: China's GE policy becomes nore cautious

genet-news mailing list

-------------------------------- GENET-news --------------------------------

TITLE:  China: Hard to Swallow
SOURCE: Business China, Economist Intelligence Unit, sent via AgBioView, USA
DATE:   Feb 3, 2003

------------------ archive: ------------------

China: Hard to Swallow

'China's GM food programme is causing indigestion in Beijing'

Since China threatened to implement strict safety and labelling
restrictions on some genetically modified (GM) agricultural imports in
2001, exporters to China have questioned the country's motives. While
Chinese officials claim the requirements are aimed at protecting
consumers, foreign traders denounce the measures as protectionist (see
"Genetically confused," BC, Jul 30th 2001, pp 4-5). Indeed, the move
appears to counter government efforts -- begun by Deng Xiaoping in 1985
-- to develop a domestic biotech sector, including the engineering of GM

But while China has an obvious interest in developing agricultural
products more cheaply and efficiently, it also has legitimate concerns
regarding the viability of its agriculture sector (which supports some
900m rural residents). Scepticism in several of China's major export
markets and reported detrimental effects of one transgenic crop, Bt
cotton, lend credence to the claims behind China's strict GM policy.
Regardless of sincerity, however, the policy is putting pressure on
China's extremely productive biotech industry. As long as uncertainty
remains over the GM question, even government-funded research will lead
to little commercialisation of modified crops.

Schizophrenic state. China's largely state-funded research into plant
biotechnology grew from US$17m in 1986 to US$112m in 1999, according to a
study published last year in Science magazine by US and Chinese
researchers. And investment continues to accelerate. Last year the
government announced plans to raise its investment in agricultural
biotechnology research to US$500m annually -- comparable to US government
spending on equivalent research. In fact, China accounts for more than
half of the developing world's spending on plant biotechnology and at
least 10% of all publicly funded research worldwide, according to the report.

The results of this programme have been impressive. In 1996-2000 local
scientists tested and developed hundreds of GM plants, animals and
recombined micro-organisms. Early in 2002 a Chinese laboratory beat out
top foreign research houses to complete the mapping of the rice genome, a
project it completed in just months. China research has also filled a
useful niche. Unlike research in developed countries, which has focused
on herbicide tolerance and improved quality, China's has concentrated on
developing crops that feature better yields and greater resistance to
disease or pests.

China's first major commercialisation of a GM crop took place in 1997.
After the devastation of local cotton production by bollworm
infestations, the government agreed to commercialise strains that
incorporated a gene adapted from a soil bacterium poisonous to the
bollworm. The subsequent large-scale adoption by Chinese farmers (with
and without official approval) of two versions of this Bt cotton -- one
developed by the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences, the other by a
joint venture with US biotech giant Monsanto -- led to an 80% reduction
in pesticide use and generated considerable savings and health benefits
for local cotton farmers.

Bt cotton is thought to be planted now on as much as 2.2m hectares in
China -- over half of the nation's total cotton production acreage (see
"Reaping what they sow," BC, Jan 20th, pp 8-9). If these early results
could be replicated across China's entire agricultural sector,
researchers calculate that the economic advantages -- from both lower
growing costs and profits from export of the technology -- would stretch
to billions of dollars.

Ironically, however, it is the very success of China's transgenic cotton
crop that has revealed the technology's shortcomings. According to a
controversial report published last June by environmental group
Greenpeace in conjunction with a research institute funded by China's
State Environmental Protection Agency, widespread adoption of Bt cotton
in China has resulted in the evolution of toxin-resistant bollworms or
the emergence of secondary pests that cause equivalent damage. The report
warns that Bt cotton "will be ineffective in controlling pests after
eight to ten years of continuous production." If true, this would have
serious repercussions for the viability of GM crops.

Even unproven, such claims are enough to retard the acceptance and
development of GM crops in China. The Ministry of Agriculture points to
the unknown effects of GM products to limit imports, and to the
ambivalent attitudes of many foreign markets towards GM imports --
especially Europe and Japan -- to forestall domestic commercialisation of
the crops.

Beijing is considering banning GM crops in certain areas, and nominating
these GM-free "islands" as export zones. And authorities have begun
tightening regulations that govern the use and development of GM
products. In April 2002 foreign companies were barred from investing in
domestic GM seed-development projects. In addition, the government has
stalled commercialisation of new varieties of GM crops (in particular
rice and corn) that have long-since completed field-testing in China --
much to the chagrin of domestic and foreign biotech researchers,
including Monsanto. Bt cotton remains the only major GM crop species to
have been adopted widely in China (see table, "The changed").

With continued high levels of state funding destined for agricultural
biotech research, however, Beijing's attempt to limit the spread of GM in
China appear half-hearted at best. They may be temporarily effective --
and, by blocking trade, may alleviate some of the pain brought on by
China's market-opening commitments under the World Trade Organisation.
But the enthusiastic adoption of GM crop strains by farmers regardless of
official approval suggests that China will become a GM nation sooner or
later, and whether the government approves it or not.

The changed Major GM plants in China, commercialised (*) and in trials
Crop/Introduced trait
(Source: Centre for Chinese Agricultural Policy)

Cotton - Insect resistance* Disease resistance
Rice - Insect resistance Disease resistance Herbicide resistance Salt
Wheat - BYDV resistance Quality improvement
Maize- Insect resistance Quality improvement
Soybean - Herbicide resistance
Potato - Disease resistance Quality improvement
Rapeseed - Disease resistance
Peanut - Virus resistance
Tobacco - Insect resistance
Cabbage - Virus resistance
Tomato - Virus resistance* Shelf life prolonged* Cold tolerance
Melon - Virus resistance
Sweet pepper - Virus resistance*
Chilli - Virus resistance
Petunia - Altered colour* 
Papaya - Virus resistance