China has made a move forward in loosening its grip on genetically modified (GM) technology to strengthen the nation’s seed industry amid heightened food security concerns, SCMP reported on Nov. 16.

On Friday, the Ministry of Agriculture proposed an overhaul of regulations governing GM crops, with detailed plans in two draft documents, ahead of the central economic work conference and rural work conference next month.

The planned changes include easing trial requirements for authorized GM crops, revising safety evaluations for GM organisms used in agriculture, encouraging enterprises and institutions to build their own research bases, and relaxing geographic restrictions on test areas, SCMP explained.

These changes are expected to boost the competitiveness of China’s seed industry. Last year, Beijing called for a breakthrough in biotechnology and seed production amid food supply turmoil caused by the COVID-19 epidemic and worries about over-reliance on imported soybeans, including from geopolitical rival the United States.

On Monday, the Chinese Ministry of Agriculture issued a draft member list for its new committee on GM crop safety, with Wu Kongming, an academic at the Chinese Academy of Engineering and high-profile advocate for GM commercialization, topping the list.

“The timing and intensity of the policies both beat market expectations,” Zhou Sha, an analyst at Huaxi Securities, wrote in a note on Sunday.

“The preparatory work before liberalising the commercialisation of GM has been basically completed.”

The changes could imply that new GM crops enter the market by the end of 2022, said Chen Mengyao, an analyst at Guolian Securities.

The new regulations, made available for public comment until Dec. 12, have been released before implementing a key plan to revitalize the seed industry, which was approved in July by the Central Comprehensively Deepening Reforms Commission, led by Chinese communist leader Xi Jinping.

According to SCMP, after the soybean turned into a major battlefield of the US-China trade war and the coronavirus pandemic raised food security concerns, whether Beijing should loosen its grip on GM technology to help domestic grain supply has become a hot topic for debates.

Some policymakers even regard seeds as the “chips” of agriculture, just like semiconductors that are at the center of an increasingly heated tech war between the two powers.

Wu, who will lead the new committee on GM crop safety, said last month that cultivating new crop and animal varieties using GM technology “is expected to meet China’s rising demand for grain and protein, and fundamentally ensure the country’s grain security.”

“GM technology is the key means to enhance the competitiveness of China’s soybean industry … and can improve the yield and production level of corn in China,” Wu said.

The comments, first published by the Chinese Discipline Inspection and Supervision Daily, were picked up by the agricultural ministry and circulated on its website’s ” policy interpretation ” section on the “policy interpretation” section on Oct. 29.

Wu said approved GM foods on the market were “as safe as traditional food,” but warned, “China’s biological seed industry is facing great challenges, the originality of key core technologies is insufficient, and 70 per cent of the core patents of global agricultural biotechnology are controlled by the US”.

Wu, who is also vice-president of the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences (CAAS), said China must advance industrialization and commercialization of GM cultivation while taking product safety, technological maturity, urgency, social acceptance, and international trade into account.

In a paper published in 2018, Kai Cui & Sharon P. Shoemaker revealed Chinese consumers’ opinions toward GM food. According to the survey, 46.7% of respondents negatively viewed GM foaod. Although China’s Ministry of Agriculture and the science community generally expressed a positive attitude toward GM food, the percentage of respondents that trusted the government and scientists was only 11.7 and 23.2%, respectively.

According to FAO, the main arguments against the use of GMOs in agriculture include potential adverse effects on the environment (genes can end up in unexpected places and mutate with harmful effects, etc.), human health (transfer of allergenic genes and antibiotic resistance, etc.) and socio-economic impact (Loss of farmers’ access to plant material, etc.).

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