In what must be regarded as a very significant move, China has paved the way for its farmers to produce genetically modified (GM) crops.

The decision is said to centre on its desire to loosen its dependence on soya bean imports in particular, where it currently accounts for almost 60% of global trade.

China is the world’s largest importer of soya beans and maize for animal feed and its proposed move to GM is expected to bolster its internal production and decrease its dependence on such imports.

GM since 1988

It may come as a surprise that China was the first country to grow GM crops commercially in the late 1980s.

At that time, this was mainly the production of virus-resistant tobacco plants, but its move to other crops was partly prevented by a level of internal opposition and partly by its desire to be seen to provide safe food for its population.

It did subsequently move to grant biosecurity certificates or licences for GM maize and rice varieties in the 2000s, but these were never produced commercially at the time.

Cotton was also cleared for use there and this is said to be the only GM crop in production up to now and it is widely grown.

Dependence on imports

In 2021, China imported 100 million tonnes (mt) of soya bean and 27mt of maize, mainly for use as animal feeds to produce pigs, poultry and fish.

The recognition that its use of conventional non-GM varieties just cannot meet the increasing demand for meat from its growing middle-class has prompted the change in an effort to increase its internal production of these crops.

In the overall scheme of things, the move has the potential to free up millions of tonnes of soya and maize for use by other countries and this may impact on global market supply and prices.

Technology for yields

Analysis figures from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation indicate that China’s maize and soya bean yields are only about half those achieved in the main exporting countries in the Americas.

To help address this, Chinese scientists are now advocating the use of new technologies to produce better varieties with higher yield potential and reduced environmental footprint.

While this obviously includes the use of GM crops, its scientists have also been very busy developing gene edited varieties of crops to help improve its production levels for the future.

In this regard, the government has also introduced new regulations that set out a clear path for approval for genetically modified (GM) crops and gene edited crops.

It is widely accepted that China’s research institutes have already published more research on market-oriented gene-edited crops than any other country, according to a Rabobank report.

Safety certificates

Safety certificates for production have already been granted to four GM maize and three GM soya bean varieties.

Pilot production of these in 2021 showed that these varieties have excellent resistance to insects and herbicides, as well as higher yield potential.

Weeds are a major factor in crop losses there and the pilot scheme showed that lower herbicide use still resulted in yield increases of 6.7% to 10.7% in maize.

As well as maize and soya beans, it has also supposedly cleared GM canola, cotton, papaya, petunia, poplar trees, rice, sugar beet, sweet pepper and tomatoes for production.

Reduced pesticide use

Given its massive size and high production, it is expected that China’s adoption of GM crops could significantly reduce global pesticide use, a finding that has already been well substantiated in its GM cotton production since 1997.

However, its move to expand GM crop production may still meet with opposition from pockets in society, but it is now said to be ‘taking steps’ to counter this.