Sunday, August 14, 2016

China All in For GMOs

China's State Council endorsed R&D and commercialization of genetically modified crops as one of the priorities in its 13th Five-year Plan on Science and Technology. The document emphasized dual objectives of putting China on the forefront of scientific research while maintaining the strictest approval process for genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

The GMO endorsement was a small part of a lengthy Five-year Plan for Science and Technology (2016-2020) which projects a broad vision of transforming China's economy from one that cranks out products using imported technology to an economy that runs on innovation. The plan emphasizes dual priorities of using science and technology to maintain national security and to move up to a higher rung in global value chains. Research and development on genetically modified crops is the eighth of 13 priority projects identified in the plan. Other priorities include space exploration, super computing, and new-generation broadband wireless communication. The Plan is described as an important to achieving the "all-round well-off society" and the "China Dream" of the great revival of the Chinese race.

The agricultural GMO project prioritizes research on crops resistant to drought, pests, disease, and cold. It calls for strengthening transgenic research capacity for cotton, corn, and soybeans, and for commercializing pest-resistant cotton and corn and herbicide-tolerant soybean varieties. Research on food crops--rice and wheat--should concentrate on traits that don't affect the endosperm. The plan endorses genetic modification, cloning, gene editing, and "other new-type technologies."

This does not imply that China will be importing seeds; to the contrary the plan implies that GMO seeds will be supplied by Chinese companies. A specific priority in the S&T plan is "indigenous innovation" in Chinese breeding and molecular design, with a focus on agricultural plants, animals, micro-organisms, and trees "in support of national food security."

The plan fleshes out the January "Number One Document's" instructions to "strengthen research capacity in agricultural transgenic technology and supervision on the foundation of food security." In a press conference, State Council advisor Han Jun explained that a country feeding 1.3 billion people can't afford to be out of date and needs to seize the high ground in agricultural biotechnology research. Han also stressed that China would adopt the world's strictest safety evaluation and approval process for GMOs. "Bold in research; cautious in approval" is the catch-phrase intended to encourage eager scientists and seed merchants while reassuring skeptical Chinese consumers.

China's Xinhua News Service said the five-year plan is the latest in a series of signals that China needs to build up a set of genetically-modified varieties protected by intellectual property rights; and strict safety measures must prevent illegal planting and propagation of GMO crops. A Ministry of Agriculture official said commercialization of GMOs will be prioritized in three groups: non-food crops first, then "intermediate" crops (for feed and industrial processing), and finally food crops. One academician told Xinhua that China's approval process for agricultural GMOs will be the strictest in the world. Ministry of Agricultural officials assured the public they would carry out "dragnet" investigations at spring planting and fall harvest to prevent illegal planting, propagation and marketing of unapproved GMO crops. The Xinhua article notes that many details are still unclear about how research and development and approval will work. One scientist acknowledged that a defect in the plan to commercialize genetically modified corn is that China has no such varieties close to commercialization.

Beijing Commerce News said the five-year plan opens the door to a huge market for genetically modified seeds in China. A China Academy of Science scientist said that conventional breeding techniques had reached their limits, and genetic modification is the most scientific and most efficient method for breeding available now. This article repeated concerns about building a strict supervision system to keep up with research capabilities and emphasized the role of labeling regulations to ensure consumers' "right to know" and "right to choose."

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