WASHINGTON, Dec. 7, 2016 - If China is going to overhaul its agricultural biotechnology approval process, it looks like it will have to happen during the Trump administration, a dubious proposition given the antagonism that the president-elect showed towards China during and after the election campaign.
Hopes were high in the Obama White House that the U.S. could persuade China this year to commit to significant concessions in the way it approves genetically engineered corn, soybeans and other commodities, U.S. government and industry officials say.
The USDA and the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative have been pressing China for years to conduct its approvals at the same time as the U.S. does, but without success. China’s continued insistence that it not begin its approval process until new traits have been approved in another country adds years to the time that it takes for biotech seed companies to get their products on the market.
The Obama administration made it a priority to get China to speed up its approvals and make the process more transparent and reliable, but U.S. negotiators have little to show for their efforts with just weeks left before Donald Trump is sworn in.
After no progress was made in a November meeting of the Joint Commission on Commerce and Trade (JCCT), officials say they are uncertain about the future of the U.S.-China relationship.
“There’s a high level of frustration still, but we can’t forget China is our most important trading partner,” said Veronica Nigh, an economist at the American Farm Bureau Federation. “So where does that leave us? Nowhere at the moment. We’ll see what the new administration’s tack is on trade with China.”
Nigh said the Chinese may not have felt it was worth it to make any major concessions to an administration that is on the way out. “Frankly, I think that’s probably why the Chinese were as non-committal to doing anything as they were,” Nigh said.
Hopes were raised five months earlier, at a Strategic & Economic Dialogue meeting in June, when China agreed to have a “substantive” conversation on restructuring its approval process at the JCCT meeting in November. On the U.S. side, the government promised to conduct a study on the impacts of asynchronous approvals – that is, approvals made at different times.
While China did agree to a conversation at the JCCT, it turned out to be far from substantive, with Chinese negotiators barely participating, U.S. sources said.
“The Chinese went into JCCT with no intentions of giving the U.S. anything,” one U.S. source said. “(U.S. negotiators) engaged very hard right up until the last minute with the Chinese, at the very highest levels, and unfortunately the Chinese were unwilling to budge.”
USTR Michael Froman summed up the situation after negotiations closed: “In the area of agricultural biotechnology… we were disappointed with our inability to make more progress.”
U.S. agriculture negotiators went into the JCCT summit with three goals, according to sources. They wanted China to advance the conversation on its asynchronous approvals, get new assurances on timely and predictable approvals, and get China to clear at least eight biotech traits that have been in the Chinese approval pipeline since as early as 2011.
The third goal may still be possible.
China’s National Biosafety Committee met in September and did not approve any traits, but the secretive group is set to meet again sometime this month and could do so then.
USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack told Agri-Pulse that Chinese Vice Premier Wang Yang had said he would take the U.S. concerns back to Agriculture Minister Changfu Han “and that he expected action in December.”
Vilsack said he took that to mean China’s National Biosafety Committee would likely approve at least some of the eight agriculture biotech traits that have been under review the longest. That list includes genetically modified soybean, corn and alfalfa traits developed by Monsanto, Bayer, Syngenta, Dow AgroSciences and Dupont Pioneer. All were first approved years ago by the U.S. and countries including Japan, Brazil, Canada, Mexico, South Korea, Taiwan, New Zealand and others.
“Historically what that has meant is approvals, but not necessarily the whole number of approvals that are teed up,” Vilsack said. “That’s why we expressed disappointment with the (JCCT) meeting, because we would have preferred a stronger commitment on the eight and a stronger indication that the improvements that they have promised repeatedly are actually going to take place.”
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, tempting Chinese trade retaliation.
The Farm Bureau’s Nigh said she was cautiously optimistic that China will come through with the eight approvals this month.
“The biotech companies continue to jump through all the hoops, but yet we’re still waiting without a lot of certainty,” she said. “That’s not a positive way to move forward. I think the Chinese clearly see the approval of products as they’re doing us a favor.”
One of those biotech seed developers waiting for a Chinese approval is Dupont Pioneer. The company first applied to China for approval of a new type of yield-boosting corn, called “Qrome,” in 2013.
“Qrome products are approved for cultivation in the U.S. and Canada and have also received import approval in a number of key countries. Pioneer continues to pursue additional import approvals for Qrome, including in China. DuPont Pioneer will not make Qrome products available for sale or distribution until completion of field testing and applicable regulatory reviews,” according to a spokesperson.
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