6-Regulation: China plans restrictions to access to its geneticresources
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TITLE: China keeps biotech work quiet
SOURCE: The Wall Street Journal Europe, by Peter Wonacott
sent by checkbiotech/Syngenta
DATE: Jan 21, 2003
------------------ archive: http://www.gene.ch/genet.html ------------------
China keeps biotech work quiet
BEIJING - When Xue Da Yuan talks about the future of biotechnology in
China, he starts with the kiwi fruit.
About a century ago, the Chinese scientist says, visiting New Zealanders
found a fuzzy grape-size fruit growing on a sacred Buddhist mountain and
took it back to their country. Researchers discovered how to make the
fruit plumper, sweeten its green insides and ultimately export the kiwi
all over the world, including to its ancestral home, China, where it
sells for five times the price of its domestic counterpart.
"If China had developed the same species, maybe its fruit would occupy
the world market," Mr. Xue says. "Now it's a New Zealand resource."
The twists in a fruit's origins may seem obscure. But the kiwi's history
is suddenly relevant to Chinese scientists and bureaucrats as they debate
the best way forward for agricultural biotechnology in China. Many are
worried that China trails the U.S. and other countries by such a margin
that it can't hope to compete in determining what plants, trees, herbs
and fruits -- grown on Chinese soil -- may someday yield scientific
breakthroughs and commercial riches.
Fears that foreign companies may start to patent genetic material
obtained from native Chinese products are now behind stepped-up efforts
to police biotechnology, showing how nationalism is shaping views on how
to commercialize the science.
Recent efforts to restrict access to China's biotech market have prompted
complaints from foreign industry executives, who say government
protectionism is stifling investment and export opportunities.
China's scientists acknowledge that views of biotech are evolving. "A
country should protect its genetic resources. It's just like territory,"
declares Mr. Xue, an adviser to China's State Environmental Protection
One of Mr. Xue's tasks highlights that objective. The 47-year-old is
involved in drafting a secret list that will try to keep the genetic
makeup of certain goods out of foreign hands. Culled from thousands of
medicinal herbs, plants and vegetables, the list will seek to isolate
agricultural products deemed quintessentially Chinese, and safeguard
their genetic material in a government-run repository. The list will be
broken into three categories: gene matter that can be freely exchanged
between Chinese and foreign scientists; material that can be exchanged
under certain conditions; and material off-limits to the outside world.
Other countries maintain such gene banks, but China appears more
reluctant to share what it has, according to biotech experts. Mr. Xue
declines to disclose possible contents of the list, partly because he and
others think the information could spur scientific treasure hunts for
China's most precious resources.
"We have a lot of genetic material that others don't have, like cabbage,"
says Bai Chengshou, a deputy director at China's environmental protection
bureau. How and when Beijing plans to disclose the list's contents, and
enforce the restrictions, isn't yet clear.
The effort is an offshoot of a global trademark movement that has swept
countries touting their own special foods, such as French winemakers in
Bordeaux or Italian cheesemakers in Parma. China's unease over how a
globalized economy is blurring lines between what belongs to countries
and companies is shared by developing nations. Pakistan and India, for
instance, have fought a U.S. patent on a variety of South Asian rice.
When U.S. biotech company Monsanto Co. tried to patent a gene segment of
a soybean that had been grown in China for thousands of years, Chinese
media kicked up a fuss. And in recent months, Chinese newspapers have
focused on the fact that 70% of Peking ducks in China's restaurants now
are products of a U.K. company, Cherry Valley Farms, which developed the
hybrid duck in Britain and raises them on joint-venture farms in China.
British geneticists used computers to develop the hybrid fowl, which
grows faster, lays more eggs and eats less than its Chinese cousin. "You
get a reduced-fat carcass that still retains the special flavor of Peking
duck," says Cherry Valley's director of livestock breeding, Richard Bird.
China has long been open to growing farm products that originated
elsewhere. And the role that foreigners play in cultivating more pest-
resistant staple crops, such as bioengineered grain, cotton and oil
seeds, has gained government support. Over a five-year period that ends
in 2005, the Chinese government has pledged $600 million (562.7 million
euros) to boost biotech research.
But while such signs are encouraging to U.S. biotech companies, China is
proving slow to commercialize the science. That caution is in line with
the other side of the global biotech debate represented by the European
Union, where consumers have resisted lab-altered foods.
Industry experts believe China's caution is tied to the inroads foreign
biotech companies have made. In contrast to almost every other area of
the Chinese economy, Beijing has curbed foreign investment in
agricultural biotech. Last March, for example, China announced it was
barring foreign investment in precious agricultural breeds, including the
genes in plants. It also banned foreign involvement in developing
genetically altered seeds, which was previously allowed.