Froman 'disappointed' as China resists reforms in biotech approval process

By Bill Tomson

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WASHINGTON, Nov. 23, 2016 -  An annual U.S.-China trade conference ended today with little headway in getting China to reform the way it approves new agricultural biotechnology traits, U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman said.

“In the area of agricultural biotechnology… we were disappointed with our inability to make more progress.” Froman told reporters at the conclusion of the Joint Commission on Commerce and Trade (JCCT) meeting.

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China's acceptance of new varieties of genetically modified corn, soybeans and other commodities is vitally important to the U.S. agriculture sector that depends on exports to the Asian giant, Froman said.

The U.S. has been pressing China for years to ditch its asynchronous approach to approving new genetically modified traits, but has had little success. China is the only major importing country that still refuses to begin its biotech approval process until after the U.S. or another country first completes the approval process. The U.S., Japan, and many other nations have all agreed to conduct approvals at the same time.

Furthermore, China has become less reliable and more secretive about its approval process. The country's National Biosafety Committee used to meet three times a year to announce new approvals, but it is common now for the agency to meet just once or not at all in a given year.

Froman and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack had expressed hopes that there would be progress, leading up to this year's JCCT.

In a statement Tuesday, Froman stressed that the U.S. “has long sought that China have a transparent, timely and science-based regulatory system for the review and approval of products derived from agricultural biotechnology. We have had many discussions on these topics, but we still have unnecessary trade disruptions, because of the asynchronous approval process. This not only hurts U.S. farmers, but it hurts China's livestock industry and China's own innovation industry.”

Matthew O'Mara, managing director for the Biotechnology Innovation Organization (BIO), said the U.S. and China have been meeting more regularly on their differences over the approval process, but the situation has not improved.

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“Changes in regulations over there have left it very unclear as to how to actually work through the process and what timelines are for approval,” O'Mara said on Tuesday at an event held by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

There will be plenty of lawmakers on Capitol Hill who will also be disappointed in the lack of progress to get China to reform its biotech approval process. Some 37 senators sent President Barack Obama a letter earlier this month, asking him to make the issue a priority at the JCCT meeting.

“When the Chinese government fails to remain transparent, science-based, and timely in its regulatory process, it impacts not only our farmers' and ranchers' abilities to access critical markets in China, but also their abilities to utilize the best and most innovative agricultural technologies in our fields at home in the U.S,” the senators said in the letter.

Many seed companies will not release their products in the U.S. before getting Chinese approval out of fear that some of the commodities could inadvertently wind up in China.

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