Sunday, January 17, 2021

China's Seed Self-Sufficiency Strategy

Chinese authorities approved genetically modified corn seed produced by Chinese company less than a month after the top leadership called for strengthening the nation's seed industry as a critical task for 2021. 

China formally adopted a nationalist seed industry policy at the December 16-18, 2020 "economic work conference" where "solving the seed and cultivated land problems" was featured as the fifth of eight key economic tasks for 2021. Another layer of "seed security" (种子安全) has been added to "food security" (粮食安全). 

China's propaganda machinery has modified the national food security strategy slogan to emphasize the importance of "filling Chinese bowls with Chinese food grown from Chinese seeds" [emphasis added].

The seed initiative also fits into Xi Jinping's new economic strategy of reliance on native Chinese technology as the economy moves into a new phase of development. Another slogan promoting the seed industry initiative, "seeds are agriculture's micro chips" (种子是农业的‘芯片), embodies Xi's new strategy of controlling the technology at the heart of production processes rather than simply being a big producer of output.

Official news media say China's industry supplies 95 percent of the seeds grown in the country, but yields of soybeans and corn are lower than in developed countries, and China cannot supply seeds for some vegetables grown in greenhouses. The entire Chinese seed industry's R&D is said to be less than half that of German company Bayer. The Chinese strategy includes strengthening seed banks and deepening collaboration between research institutes and seed companies. 

On January 11, 2021--3 weeks after the economic work conference--China's Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs announced its list of genetically modified crops approved for biosafety certificates. The list featured genetically modified corn varieties developed by Beijing Dabeinong (DBN), a company engaged in swine production and crop breeding. The approval included DBN9936, a variety resistant to lepidoptera pests like corn borer and tolerant of the herbicide glyphosate, and DBN9858, a variety to be grown as a refuge in conjunction with DBN9936 to prevent development of resistant pests. 

The varieties were approved last January and July for production in northern spring corn regions. Six months later, the variety is now being approved for production in all other major corn-producing regions, including the Huang-Huai region, northwestern, southern, and southwestern corn-producing regions. The DBN corn accounted for 8 of the 21 genetically modified events approved in January for production in China. 

The DBN approval comes after years of banning genetically modified seeds from foreign companies, duplicative trials, and slow-walking approvals of imported crops grown from genetically modified seeds abroad. Additional approvals of imported GMOs issued in January included 5 cotton and corn varieties from Bayer, Syngenta, and BASF. 

Last July, the Ministry quietly re-approved the Syngenta pest-resistant corn variety MIR162 for a second 5-year term. MIR162 was at the center of controversy in 2014 when Chinese officials rejected every corn shipment containing any trace of MIR162 until they finally approved it in December of that year after negotiation with U.S. counterparts. 

Syngenta's web site displays a timeline showing that MIR162 was initially submitted to Chinese authorities for approval in 2010. After years of trials and requests for additional submissions, China still had not approved MIR162 in November 2013 when border inspectors suddenly began to reject any imported corn shipment containing any trace of the variety. MIR162 had been approved in about two-dozen other countries by then. Dozens of shipments exceeding 1 million tons were rejected in 2013-14. Legal action taken by U.S. farmers against Syngenta led to a $1.5 billion settlement in 2018. 

Meanwhile, at the same time Chinese officials were enforcing a zero-tolerance on imported GMO corn back in 2014 it became evident that genetically modified corn had become widespread in Chinese fields, markets and warehouses despite being banned for production in the country. Greenpeace surveys found 93 percent of the corn in Liaoning Province was GMO. 

2014 was also the year Xi Jinping issued a public endorsement of GMO technology. In 2016, China's State Council endorsed GMO technology in its 5-year plan for science and technology.

There was some enthusiasm a year ago from the North American-European seed industry about China's initiative to expand use of biotech seeds, but the latest move shows clearly that foreign seeds will not be welcome in China.

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