China backs genetically modified soya beans in push for high-tech agriculture

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 10 August, 2016, 4:14pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 10 August, 2016, 4:16pm

China will push for the commercialisation of genetically modified soya beans over the next five years as it seeks to raise its agriculture sector’s efficiency, potentially boosting crop output by the world’s top soy importer and consumer.

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China, which has spent billions of dollars researching GM crops, has already embraced the technology for cotton but has not yet permitted the cultivation of any biotech food crops amid fears from some consumers over perceived health risks.

In its latest five-year plan for science and technology to 2020, China for the first time outlined specific GM crops to be developed, including soya beans – used in food products such as tofu and soya sauce and for animal feed – and corn.

The blueprint, published on the government’s website on Monday, recommended “pushing forward the commercialisation of new pest-resistant cotton, pest-resistant corn and herbicide-resistant soya beans”.

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The use of the technology for corn was flagged in April when an agriculture official said that Beijing could approve GM crops in the next five years.

Corn is used mostly for animal feed and industrial products like starch and sweeteners, and a move to biotech crops could be less contentious than with soya beans.

Support for new varieties comes as China seeks to overhaul its crop structure. Farmers are being encouraged to switch from growing corn to soya beans and to rotate between crops.

But analysts say boosting soya bean production could be difficult without higher subsidies.

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China is expected to produce 12.5 million tonnes of soya in 2016/17 but will import a record 86 million tonnes, according to a forecast by US agriculture officials. China permits the import of GM soya beans for use in animal feed.

Herbicide-resistant soya beans are already planted by most growers in the United States, the world’s top soya producer.

“You can’t manually kill weeds on the large farms in the northeast,” said an executive at a seed company in China.

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“If you’re going to rotate between soya and corn, herbicide-tolerant soya beans are needed for mechanisation,” he added, referring to the need for crops to be able to tolerate repeated exposure to weed killers applied by tractors.

But cultivating GM soya beans is likely to face strong resistance from consumers and a local industry that sells GMO-free soya beans at a premium to imported beans.

“The major production areas for key commodity crops shouldn’t be planted with GMOs,” said Liu Denggao, vice-president of the Chinese Soya Bean Industry Association.

“Domestic soya beans are extremely desired and trusted by consumers for food.”

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Commercialisation of GM soya is likely to take a backseat to GM corn however, said Huang Dafang, professor at the Biotechnology Research Institute under the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences.

The government has previously said it will roll out biotech varieties of industrial crops such as corn before moving to food crops like soya.

“Corn is more important from a production point of view,” Huang said.