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2-Plants: China treads a careful path towards biotech greatness

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TITLE:  China treads a careful path towards biotech greatness
SOURCE: The Financial Times, UK, by Clive Cookson
DATE:   1 Feb 2006

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China treads a careful path towards biotech greatness

Plant scientists see China as a global leader for the future. The
country has set agricultural biotechnology as a research priority, with
spending estimated at around $200m this year and rising fast.

Clive James, chairman of the International Service for the Acquisition
of Agribiotech Applications, says the development of genetically
modified crops "is primarily as an issue of food, feed and fibre
security" for the Chinese leadership. Commercial considerations come
well behind security as a motive for the country's agribiotech
programme, which employs an estimated 2,000 scientists.

But even in China the route to GM crops is not straightforward. The
government is far from united in its commitment to GM. Some officials in
the agriculture ministry are more interested in building exports of non-
GM crops, particularly soya, to markets where there is strong consumer
resistance to biotech foods. And the State Environmental Protection
Administration co-operates with China's surprisingly vigorous Greenpeace
organisation, whichis campaigning against GM crops.

Chinese farmers have grown insect-resistant "Bt" cotton since 1996, when
the commercial planting of GM crops also started in north America.
Today, almost 70 per cent of China's cotton comes from GM plants. Jikun
Huang, director of the Centre of Chinese Agricultural Policy in Beijing,
says GM cotton has benefited 6m Chinese farmers through increased yields
and greatly reduced insecticide use.

However, Monsanto, the company that pioneered the worldwide
commercialisation of Bt cotton, has not benefited as much as it had
hoped from China. The country introduced its own Bt cotton, developed at
the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences, at the same time as the
Monsanto product arrived. Originally the American company had 70 per
cent of the Chinese market, says Mr Huang, but last year the Chinese
products overtook it.

"Monsanto [executives] are not happy," Mr Huang observes. "They complain
that the government limited them to a few provinces and they complain
that they cannot control their own varieties in China."

Although cotton is still the only GM crop grown commercially in China, a
dozen others are being field tested. The main focus of attention is
rice, the country's principal food crop. Four types of Chinese-developed
GM rice - three to prevent insect damage and one to resist bacterial
blight - have undergone extensive field trials yet none has won a
commercial production licence, in spite of a series of applications
going back to 1998.

Environmental campaigners are fighting hard to prevent the commercial
planting of biotech rice in China - and may delay approval for a few
more years - but the crop's proponents are confident that the food
security arguments and GM's agricultural benefits will win the argument
eventually. It might then be adopted widely in Asia.

However, GM soya, one of the key biotech crops in the Americas, is not
likely to be planted commercially in China for a long while. While the
country imports large amounts of GM soya, the agriculture ministry
perseveres with its policy of growing only non-GM soya, for export at
premium prices to Europe, South Korea and Japan.

Although research is getting under way, GM soya will not be
commercialised until China has its own varieties, Mr Huang says.
"Biotech crops in China depend on what technology is developed in the


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