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2-Plants: China takes a bumpy road from the lab to the field

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

TITLE:  Transgenic Crops: China Takes a Bumpy Road From The Lab to The
SOURCE: Science  298 ( 5602): 2317-2319, by Ding Yimin and Jeffrey Mervis
        sent by AgBioView, USA
DATE:   Dec 20, 2002

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

Transgenic Crops: China Takes a Bumpy Road From The Lab to The Field

'China's rejection of applications to sell GM crops and a ban on foreign 
investment coexist with an expanding research portfolio'

Beijing - The Chinese government has long maintained that transgenic crops 
are the key to feeding and clothing the country's huge population in the 
21st century. And it is backing that conviction with rapid increases in 
research budgets. But although it once enthusiastically embraced efforts to 
get genetically modified (GM) seeds into the hands of farmers and welcomed 
foreign investment in developing GM crops, the government is now proceeding 
with extreme caution. Officials point to growing concerns about biosafety 
as the reason for the shift, whereas others see trade policy as the driving 

The latest example of this dichotomy between supporting research and 
postponing the harvest of its commercial fruits came last month, when the 
government's biosafety committee turned down an application for the 
commercial distribution of a domestically developed, herbicide-resistant 
variety of rice. It wasn't a big surprise: Although China has approved 
commercial cultivation of five species of GM crops, most notably Bt cotton 
in 1997, no staple food crop has ever passed muster. Earlier this year, the 
government drew the line around GM crops a little tighter by announcing a 
ban on new foreign investment in agbiotechnology ventures. The rules, 
issued in March, are part of a series of edicts governing the importation 
and labeling of GM crops.

Although the two actions are independent, together they emphasize the 
prevailing attitude toward GM crops. Chinese officials say their cautious 
approach is needed to make sure all GM crops are safe. The restriction on 
foreign investment, they argue, simply adds another protective layer by 
ensuring that overseas companies don't unleash varieties that could 
threaten local strains. "Our government is not trying to ban foreign 
investment from the domestic market," insists Duan Wude, deputy director of 
the Department of Science, Technology, and Education at the Ministry of 
Agriculture. "It is only being careful with the introduction of foreign 

That explanation sounds to many observers like a smokescreen for a tougher 
trade policy, however. "By trying to protect its own research-based 
industries, China is creating a situation in which the real losers are the 
farmers," contends Scott Rozelle, a professor of agricultural and resource 
economics at the University of California, Davis. "I favor a go-slow system 
for approving new releases, but I am against the ban on foreign investment."

The ban on foreign investment "is more of a trade issue than a scientific 
issue," says Xing-Wang Deng, director of the new Center for Plant Molecular 
Genetics and Agribiotechnology, which involves scientists at Yale and 
Beijing universities. Deng and others say that China is worried that other 
countries might impose restrictions on its agricultural exports if farmers 
begin harvesting large amounts of transgenic crops, along with traditional 
varieties, and they fail to segregate the two types. That has happened in 
the past with Chinese-made soy sauce, derived in large part from GM 
soybeans grown in the United States. The ban, he says, is seen as a way to 
limit the amount of land planted with GM crops and thus make oversight 

U.S.-based Monsanto is by all accounts the company most affected by the 
restrictions on foreign investment. It's the biggest foreign source of GM 
crops in China; its Bollgard Bt cotton seeds, for example, are growing in a 
majority of the 350,000 hectares of GM cotton cultivated this year. John 
Killmer, president of Monsanto China, says the new rules exacerbate an 
already difficult situation for the company, which has repeatedly failed to 
win approval for Bt corn and has abandoned an earlier collaboration with 
Huang Danian of the National Rice Research Institute in Hangzhou on a 
herbicide-resistant rice variety that is also awaiting government approval.

"The current process is so onerous that it can take 7 to 9 years to win 
approval," says Killmer, noting that Monsanto has tried unsuccessfully for 
6 years to introduce the same Bt corn that is now growing in the United 
States. "And some corn hybrids have a life of only 3 to 4 years." Killmer 
says companies such as Monsanto currently have little incentive to push 
ahead with GM crops in China, in view of the almost-certain rejection of 
any application for a commercial license. He also dismisses the official 
explanation for the ban on new foreign investment: "The idea that it's for 
safety considerations doesn't wash," he says, because those considerations 
should apply equally to domestic activities.

China's Bt cotton crop is the fourth largest in the world and the most 
successful of five species under cultivation (see table). Two species of GM 
rice--one herbicide tolerant and the other blast resistant--have been 
approved for field trials and environmental release, but Duan says the 
review for a commercial license could take quite a long time because of 
concerns about whether genes from the transgenic plants could spread to 
wild species.

While these debates play out, plant scientists are benefiting from the 
government's growing investment in research. The current Five-Year Plan 
projects a fivefold rise in spending on agbiotech research, to perhaps $500 
million by the end of 2005, and some three dozen Chinese institutes are 
working on transgenic plant research. The Beijing-Yale center, which 
officially opened 18 months ago, is riding that wave of support, says Deng: 
"We try to understand basic biology. And we focus on Arabidopsis and rice 
because it's a good model system as well as an important economic crop."

The recent ban on foreign investment doesn't affect Yale's participation in 
the center, Deng says, nor did it stop Monsanto this summer from pledging 
approximately $750,000 over 5 years to support the center's programs. "It's 
not considered an investment by a foreign company," notes Deng about the 
contribution, which he says will "strengthen an exchange program and lessen 
our dependence on university funds."

Despite the current impasse, both Deng and Killmer believe that properly 
licensed GM crops will one day be commonplace among China's 350 million 
peasant farmers. But they offer different reasons for their optimism. "They 
are facing a use-it-or-lose-it situation," says Killmer, referring to work 
by Chinese scientists, including discoveries based on the sequencing of the 
indica rice genome, that could wind up in the hands of foreign competitors. 
"And that may be the thing that breaks the logjam."

For Deng, it's a simple matter of waiting until the government decides the 
time is right: "In the long term, these GM crops will be approved [for 
commercial sale]. All of the scientists I know are optimistic. But I don't 
know how long it will take."


GM Crops That Have Passed Muster
Approved in 1997:
Bt cotton (Monsanto)
Bt cotton (Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences)
Delayed-ripening tomato (Central China Agriculture University)
Color-altered petunia (Beijing University)
Approved in 1998:
MV-resistant sweet pepper (Beijing University)
Tomato (Beijing University)

Source: China Agricultural University


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