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Chinese GMO Research Outpaces Approvals

The fact that China hasn’t approved any commercial GMO planting since 2009 reflects public fears.
July 31, 2014

Despite recent research advances, such as a new strain of wheat that resists destructive mildew (see “Chinese Researchers Stop Wheat Disease with Gene Editing”), commercial planting of genetically modified food crops has stalled in China, the world’s most populous nation and one with a fast-tightening food supply.

Chinese farmer
Growing future: China is the world’s largest producer of wheat; here a farmer harvests from fields in Jiangsu province.

In 2009, the nation’s Ministry of Agriculture issued a so-called safety certificate to two strains of insect-resistant rice, known as Bt rice, pioneered by Qifa Zhang, a scientist at Huazhong Agricultural University in Wuhan. The ministry also approved a type of corn that helps livestock digest phosphates.

Before that, a few minor crop varieties were approved for commercial planting. But to date only an insect-resistant cotton and a virus-resistant papaya have been commercially planted on a large scale in China.

The rice approval seemed to have hit a public nerve. Rumors spread in social-media chat rooms that homegrown GMOs and the nation’s vast imports of GMO grains posed health and environmental dangers. (Military officials in one Chinese province even recently banned GMO-sourced cooking oil from troops’ food supply.) “We need the GMOs, but we face severe issues so far in China, meaning the public fears. This is a problem,” says Dafang Huang, former director of the Institute of Biotechnology within the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences.

Meanwhile, the government is also trying to wean itself from imports by building its ownseed-producing capacity for GMO corn and soybean at state companies such as DBN, which runs a biotech center in Beijing.

Long-term food security trends are worrisome. China is home to 1.3 billion people. Its population is rising, its available arable land is slowly decreasing, and yield per acre has stayed essentially flat over the past decade. “It’s going to be hard to increase the food supply with the traditional crop technology,” adds Huang, who spent time planting wheat during the Cultural Revolution.

Against a nationalist and popular backlash, none of the modified rice is officially planted, though reports of illegal plantings abound. Strictly speaking, even though rice has a biosafety certificate, it needs a final step, called varietal trials. “For the varietal trials for all major crops except cotton, there are no government guidelines on how to do it. It seems the government is not in a rush. It probably has more challenging issues on its hands, so this is not one to deal with at the moment,” says Xing-Wang Deng, who heads a joint research center for plant molecular genetics and agricultural biotech at Peking University and Yale. Deng was one of the prominent experts China lured back to establish labs in China under a government plan called the “1,000 Talent Program.”

Despite the regulatory uncertainties, Chinese researchers have quintupled their output of plant science papers in the past decade amid annual funding increases that are the envy of counterparts in other nations. “We can do research—we have enough of financial support—but I don’t know if Chinese scientists can produce the product. The government should give us clearer guidelines or information on which direction we could go further,” says Caixia Gao, who heads a gene-editing research group at the State Key Laboratory of Plant Cell and Chromosome Engineering at the Institute of Genetics and Developmental Biology in Beijing.

Gao cowrote a recent paper on how to confer mildew resistance in wheat using new genome-editing methods. The trick avoids creating transgenic crops because it doesn’t involve inserting genes from other organisms. As such she hopes the technology can sidestep much of the controversy surrounding transgenic crops.

These recent advances in the lab—plus the certainty of future food supply pressures—could quickly turn things around, Huang adds. “I am cautiously optimistic about the GMO development in China,” he says.

And if China decides to open the doors to new commercial plantings, the impact could be vast. The country’s size guarantees that any action will reverberate in global markets and research labs. “What we can do is just wait for approval from the government. And probably we can do more research work,” says Huang.

Some research has shown big benefits in China from the planting of pest-resistant cotton, which produces a substance toxic to a major pest, the bollworm. Bollworm populations have been sharply reduced not only in cotton by in nearby nontransgenic crops including corn, peanuts, and soybeans, cutting the need for pesticides while not affecting beneficial insects. But the news is not all good; a secondary pest not sensitive to the toxin has become more prevalent, suggesting that GMOs are no panacea. 

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