China to support innovative R&D of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), enterprises should play a leading role – agricultural ministry

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China will support and promote innovative research and development and application of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), according to a document published by the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs on Thursday.

Related institutes will be encouraged to conduct original innovation and high-level research of agricultural GMOs, such as launching R&D activities of novel genes and new technologies, traits and products, it said.

Agricultural GMOs that have already been granted biosafety certificates should be bred into fine varieties, promoting the development of agricultural GMO products, it said. In June, the ministry awarded safety certificates to 117 GMOs and related products, allowing their production and application.

Enterprises should play a leading role in the use of agricultural GMO products that offer superior yields and better pest resistance, the circular said.

“China should guide the cooperation between enterprises and scientific research institutions so that companies can really be the major force in the R&D, application, and trade of GMO,” it said.

Analysts said that it’s the first time that enterprises will become a main force in seeds R&D, in addition to universities and institutions.

During a GMO seminar in Beijing in December, Zhang Wen, an official with the ministry, said, “scientific innovation, especially in the seed industry, is the fundamental way to ensure food safety and supply, and improve the quality and benefits of agricultural products.”

China will also ramp up the regulation of biomaterial shifts and a related traceability system by asking legal entities to report any transfer of GMOs to the ministry 30 days in advance, the document said. The report will be included in the biosafety evaluation.

Owners of safety certificates must be responsible for the safety of the whole process, including research, variety breeding, seed production and crop trading of agricultural GMOs, it added.

“R&D involving new genes and innovations is encouraged to improve the exploration of seeds and the efficiency of planting. Compared with the rest of the world, China’s seed bank is very large, but the utilization rate is low. The main targets are soybeans and corn for feed, through molecular breeding,” said Wang Gangyi, a professor at Northeast Agricultural University.

Wang said that soybean output in China is very low due to the lack of water. Even if all of China’s existing arable land were devoted to soybeans, the yield would not be enough to supply the feed needed to raise pigs for pork, making China strongly import-reliant on soybeans and corn.

According to public data, China consumed 42.7 million tons of pork in 2020, nearly 40 per cent of global pork consumption. Meanwhile, China imported 100.33 million tons of soybeans, up more than 10 million tons year-on-year, which was nearly one-third of global production.

S&P Global in January projected that China’s soybean imports from October 2021 to September 2022 could exceed 110 million tons, a record high, as hog inventories recover faster than expected.

“The genetically modified research and marketing of Chinese people’s staple food, such as rice and wheat, has been and will be careful, because scientists need a long time to explore the effects of GMOs on human beings. Production of rice and wheat in China is sufficient,” Wang noted.

Ma added that China has been exploring and developing its seed resources since June last year, and the latest document is in line with other policies to strengthen food security.

In January this year, Beijing Dabeinong Technology Group Co Ltd said in a stock exchange filing that China plans to approve the safety of another genetically modified (GMO) corn variety and a GMO soybean the company produced.

The move comes after the country in 2019 approved three domestically designed GMO crops as safe, the first in a decade, in a fresh push towards commercial planting of GMO crops in the world’s top soybean importer and a major corn buyer.