Pesticide Action Network Updates Service (PANUPS)
In 1988, China's genetically engineered (GE) tobacco became the first GE crop in the world to be grown commercially. Production of the crop was halted in the mid-1990s, however, due to rejection of GE crops in export markets. Undeterred by this false start, Beijing has recently forged ahead into the brave new world of biotechnology, testing over 100 genetically engineered crops since 1997. Despite recent regulation of GE crops and products, government-supported research continues as China looks for ways to achieve self-sufficiency in food production and gain an edge in the growing biotech industry.
"China is very concerned about raising yields of crops to enhance its food security. Biotechnology offers high hopes," according to a Chinese agronomist quoted in a Reuters report. The government also hopes the biotech industry will continue to lure back Chinese scientists who left the country to study and work abroad.
China's biotech industry is dominated by government research institutes and universities, some of which are developing state owned enterprises to market their products. Only a few foreign firms have contracted with Chinese institutes to conduct biotech research because of China's weak intellectual property laws. Several foreign seed companies have formed joint ventures with Chinese state owned enterprises, a requirement for selling seeds of major food crops in China. Most are currently focused on the conventional seed market, but Monsanto and Delta and Pine Land have established a joint venture with the Hebei Provincial Seed Company to sell GE cotton seed.
Transgenic Bt cotton is the most widely grown GE crop in China, with estimates ranging from over 700,000 hectares to one million hectares, or about one-third of the total cotton crop. GE proponents in China point to the success of Bt cotton in greatly reducing pesticide use, and reducing overall production cost for farmers by 20%. However, according to some reports, the cotton bollworm has already developed resistance to Bt in two provinces in China.
Other commercialized GE crops include tomato, sweet pepper and petunia. Recent biotech research and development in China has spawned many more not-yet-commercialized products, including two species of Bt rice engineered to be resistant to the pyralid moth. In July, China announced development of genetically engineered tomato, eggplant and hot pepper plants that could be irrigated with seawater. Additional research is targeting rice, canola and wheat. By transferring genes of salt-tolerant plants like the mangrove into fresh-water crops, Chinese scientists claim that transgenic plants have survived seawater irrigation for four generations.
In May 2001, the government issued new regulations for genetically engineered products that require mandatory labeling and safety assessment. The Ministry of Agriculture is responsible for certifying non-GE exports, and approving GE imports, and has the authority to ban production, processing and trading of any GE product that is proven hazardous. So far no GE imports have been banned, but the regulations imply that sales of some GE products may be restricted to certain areas within China. According to the U.S. Department of Commerce Trade Information Center, "The regulations are vague, leaving most of the details to the agencies tasked with enforcement."
Because the new regulatory process will slow crop approvals for commercialization from three months to nine months, Monsanto, the largest seller of Bt cotton in China, estimates the new data requirements will delay commercialization of its Bt maize for at least a year.
Rejection of GE products by European markets and governments was the most direct cause for the new GE labeling restrictions in China. In 2000, Britain banned the import of Chinese soy sauce containing GE soybeans -- soybeans grown in the U.S., but processed in China.
Some argue China's latest regulations on GE crops serve to strengthen the domestic biotech industry while restricting competition with foreign (mainly U.S.) biotech companies. When the European Union announced its four-year GE moratorium, Chinese biotech scientist Chen Zhangliang wrote, "We can take advantage of this four-year halt to turn China into a world power in genetically modified organisms."
Meanwhile, a small but growing number of Chinese activist groups are educating the public about the risks of GE food. Lo Sze Ping of Greenpeace Hong Kong said, "I think people in Hong Kong realize that genetic engineering isn't just found in international markets anymore. Now they're wondering about what they buy at their local supermarket." Governments in Hong Kong, and in Taiwan, are advocating stricter GE food labeling standards, despite industry complaints.
Sources: San Francisco Chronicle, April 3, 2001. The New York Times, October 7, 2000. Reuters, April 5, 1999. "The China Connection," PAN A/P Safe Food Campaign, 1998. Agence France Presse, July 11, 2001. People's Daily Online, June 7, 2001 and July 20, 2001. BIOWATCH: Genetic Engineering Newsletter, No 18, January 2001. Customs Information and Import Documentation: Genetically Modified Organisms: New Regulations. China Market Information Center: International Trade Administration. U.S. Department of Commerce, June 2001. South China Morning Post, April 18, 2001. Asiaweek.com, January 21, 2000. Agrow: World Crop Protection News, 12/01/00, 3/02/01 and 6/15/01. Public and Private Collaboration On Plant Biotechnology In China, AgBioForum, 2(1), 48-53.