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Plant genetic engineering: China hesitates on the brink

China is investing more in plant biotechnology than almost any other country in the world. In 2008 the Chinese government set up a four-billion-dollar research programme. The aim is to develop new genetically modified varieties of many crops by 2020, independently of the big global agro-biotech conglomerates and their patents. However, at the moment, the only GM plants grown in China are GM cotton and GM poplars, and Chinese farmers are still not really using GM food or fodder crops.

Plant research in China: A scientist on a trial field in Wuhan (Hubai Province) provides information about GM plants. (Photo: China Daily

Rice Breeding in China

New round-grain rice cultivar in China Despite numerous projects and field trials, there is still no cultivation of GM rice in China.

Cultivation of Bt cotton in China 1998-2010

In the early days of agro-biotechnology in China at the beginning of the 1990s, there were no uniform regulations or standards for dealing with GM plants. Every research institute was allowed to conduct its own release and cultivation experiments. It is likely that in those days virus-resistant GM tobacco and tomatoes were grown on small areas. Between 1997, when national regulations for GM plants first came into force, and 2003, 83 applications for commercial exploitation were approved, including for new GM varieties of papaya, capsicum, tomato and petunia. However, the only ones actually grown on large areas so far are GM poplars and, above all, GM cotton.

Six million farmers now grow genetically modified Bt cotton to control the main cotton pest, the cotton bollworm. Its larvae eat their way through the plants causing major harvest losses. After a rapid increase in the early years, the area cultivated with Bt cotton has remained roughly constant since 2004, at 3.5 million hectares per year, or around two-thirds of Chinese cotton production. As agricultural economic studies show, the farmers growing Bt cotton have managed to reduce their production costs by between 20 and 33 per cent because they do not need to apply nearly as much insecticide. At the same time, yields increased by five per cent because of the reduction in bollworm feeding damage. And it is not only the farmers’ economic circumstances that have improved – cases of insecticide poisoning, which used to be frequent among farmers, have fallen as well. According to Jikun Huang from the Chinese Academy of Science, the case of Bt cotton shows “the possibilities offered by plant biotechnology in China, particularly for small farmers.”

Whereas Bt cotton is grown in eleven other countries, China is the only country to grow GM trees on a large scale. Reforestation programmes in the Beijing area have seen over a million Bt poplars planted on around 500 hectares. Unlike the native poplars, the GM trees produce Bt protein, which protects them against feeding damage from the numerous insects on the plantations, and so are intended to provide a more effective protective barrier against desertification.

Four billion dollars for plant research

China began to promote plant biotechnology as far back as 1986. In the five-year plans that followed, the funds allocated to it rose from four million to 40 million US dollars. In 2008, the Chinese government set up a four-billion-dollar research and development programme. The aim is to use genetic engineering methods to develop new plant varieties by 2020 that will provide higher yields, offer better food and feed quality and be resistant to pests. The scientists are to work with genes of commercial interest for which China holds the patent rights.

Research projects have been started on more than 60 different crops, but most have evidently not been continued. For the Chinese authorities, the emphasis is on arable crops that are grown largely by small farmers and that are important for feeding the population.

In 2009, China announced the approval of new GM varieties of two important food and fodder crops: a pest-resistant Bt rice and a variety of maize intended for pig fodder that produces the enzyme phytase, which means that the phosphate in the feed is digested better and the amount of phosphate in the liquid manure is reduced. Further tests and systematic cultivation trials are currently being carried out before full approval can be granted. Also pending approval are new GM varieties of oilseed rape and soya, while other research projects are focusing on GM wheat, potatoes, groundnuts, cabbage, chilli and alfalfa.

The government has the final say

However, despite the high investment in molecular biological plant research, practical application of plant genetic engineering in China has not progressed much beyond the cultivation of Bt cotton and Bt poplars. The country’s political leaders are evidently hesitant to introduce GM feed and food crops into agriculture. One reason for the hesitation could be the potential for problems in agricultural trade, as occurred a few years ago when rice exports to Europe collapsed after traces of various GM rice varieties were found in Chinese rice products. Since China now has to import large quantities of agricultural commodities, however, the fear of losing foreign buyers as a result of potential ‘GMO contamination’ is becoming less of an issue.

A public debate about plant genetic engineering has now started in China as well. Protests were held in 2010 and a petition signed by several individuals called for a cautious approach to GM plants. The Chinese government responded by releasing funds for communication about plant genetic engineering and crop science. Surveys in China confirm that the vast majority of the population knows only a limited amount about plant genetic engineering and has not so far been particularly interested in the topic. “This could lead to consumers here developing a similar opposition to GM food as exists today in many countries of the European Union,” says Peter Ho from the University of Leiden (Belgium).

It is difficult to predict how plant genetic engineering will develop in China. Research in this field receives more support in China than in almost any other country. Many scientists are convinced that without plant biotechnology it will be almost impossible to cope with the future food challenges in China. The government has also established a binding legal framework for the approval and risk assessment of GM plants in line with international standards. However, the political leaders will have the final say.

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