China’s approval of 51 new genetically modified varieties of corn and soybeans for planting on Chinese fields is a major development in the country’s changing stance on its acceptance of the technology. But there’s no evidence last week's news will lead to significant new seed business for international companies, according to industry officials.

“Overall, it’s good news because it means more food in the world,” says one seed industry representative who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of dealing with China. “China’s accepting new technology, but it’s not our technology.”

That’s because ag biotechnology is still on China’s negative list for foreign domestic investment, meaning foreign countries cannot produce seeds or even license seed technology for use on Chinese farms. 

China still maintains two separate approval processes, including one for international traits that companies need to commercialize their seeds elsewhere in the world and allow farmers to export their grains. The other is solely for Chinese companies that produce seeds for domestic production.

Despite China’s newfound drive to increase production through biotechnology, the two approval pathways do not intersect, except perhaps for the Chinese-owned Syngenta. Four of the 51 traits approved last week were produced by the China National Seed Group, a unit of Syngenta. Those approvals highlight the fact that while the U.S. approval process would not hinder Syngenta’s operations, Chinese regulations bar the U.S. and other foreign countries from seed approvals.

The 51 approvals — 14 soybean traits and 37 corn traits — announced by China’s National Crop Variety Approval Committee are preliminary but are also expected to allow Chinese corn and soybean producers to begin taking wider advantage of the type of technology that’s been allowing U.S. farmers to better ward off pests, reduce pesticide usage and produce more on limited acreage for decades. 

The approvals are now up for public comment, but that period closes Nov. 15, and farmers are expected to begin planting them next year, according to an analysis by the Beijing office of USDA’s Foreign Agricultural Service.

“Once finalized, listed GM corn and soybean varieties will be eligible for planting in approved areas, bringing (China) closer to full commercial cultivation of GM corn and soybeans,” FAS said in the report. “However, for the foreseeable future, the varieties are likely to only be planted in (Chinese) approved pilot programs for GM corn and soy, which will limit the scale of planting in 2024.”

Meanwhile, China’s National Agriculture Biosafety Committee continues on a different track to slowly consider biotech trait approvals from international companies like BASF, Bayer and Corteva. There are five waiting for their final certificate approval and they have been on hold for between three and eight years.

Last week, China issued its final approval for a BASF variety of canola, taking it off the list of waiting traits. BASF made its first submission for Chinese approval in 2017.

“I think the most important thing is that none of these products that were approved for cultivation are from American biotech companies or any multinational companies,” Nancy Travis, vice president of international affairs for the Biotechnology Innovation Organization, said of the recent flood of Chinese approvals for the country's seed producers. 

“Currently, the investment law in China prohibits non-Chinese companies from doing this kind of cultivation. There's no foreign investment allowed in the ag biotech sector in China,” she added. “So while this is good for ag biotech writ large — it's good that the Chinese government is using a science-based process to approve these traits — it's troubling that more biotech innovators cannot take advantage of this openness of the Chinese to doing this kind of research.”

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Still, there is some optimism that China’s push to transform its ag sector will eventually benefit international seed companies.

Those companies — eyeing China’s roughly 133 million acres of corn and soybean acres that may eventually all be planted with GM seeds — “are hopeful this signals a movement toward widespread adoption and perhaps eventual loosening of (China’s foreign direct investment) restrictions,” said another seed industry representative who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Nancy-Travis-BIO-300.jpgNancy Travis, Biotechnology Innovation Organization

The hope, according to several industry officials who spoke to Agri-Pulse, is that now that China is approving GM traits for planting as well as trying to convince its people that GM crops are safe, the country will both speed up international approvals as well as open up to foreign investment.

Just last month, China’s Ministry of Agriculture published a four-page document stating that not only are GM crops safe, but they will be necessary for the health of the country.

Biotechnology, the ministry said, “is a revolutionary technology in the field of breeding, a new field and new track that must be seized and is not optional … or dispensable. Agricultural transgenic technology has played an irreplaceable role in increasing crop yield, reducing loss (from pests and) weeds, reducing the use of chemical pesticides and saving labor costs.”

But the fact that China is keeping international seed companies out of its domestic market is “concerning,” Travis said. “BIO stands for development of biotech globally, and we believe in collaborative relationships across the board. We believe that collaboration is what creates innovation.”

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