China moves toward commercialization of GMO corn and soy

By Justin Cremer

January 23, 2020

Chinese officials this week announced that genetically modified (GM) corn and soybean species have passed biosafety evaluations, moving the world’s most populous country closer to the commercialization of those two GM crops.

According to reports in Chinese state-run media, two GM corn varieties and a soybean variety were among a total of 192 GM traits to have been approved earlier this month. The list of new GM traits was then subject to a 15-day period of public feedback, which according to Reuters concluded with no objections.

The new soybean variety is herbicide-resistant while the two new corn varieties are resistant to both herbicides and pests. The latter is a major concern for Chinese farmers after the recent arrival of the fall armyworm. The invasive pest species has decimated crops across Africa for years and more recently spread to Asia, reaching India in late 2018, and was first detected in China in January 2019. Chinese officials expressed concerns last month that the pest would deal a serious blow to farmers, with the country’s National Agriculture Technology Extension Service Center calling the situation “extremely grave”.

Although GM corn and rice varieties were granted biosafety certificates over a decade ago, they have never reached commercialization, in part because the Chinese public has largely been opposed to the use of GM technology. China has, however, grown GM cotton since 2006 while a GM papaya variety was approved for commercial production in the late 1990s. It already imports GM corn and soy.

According to independent Chinese news outlet Sixth Tone, many in China took to social media to express their concerns about the newly-granted soy and corn biosafety certificates, with some users calling for a boycott of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Sixth Tone reported that during the public feedback period, major state-run media outlets published articles meant to allay public concerns by highlighting the science behind GM foods. Numerous studies have concluded that GM crops are as safe as conventional ones.

China’s decision to grant the new biosafety certificates dovetails with its stated plans to commercialize GM corn and soybeans this year. According to the Reuters report, the certificates represent one of the final barriers before Chinese farmers will be able to purchase and plant the new GM varieties.

“After passing safety evaluations, GMO researchers and developers must complete some other procedures before the GMO species can be put into commercial use and be available on the market, including gaining different permits for the production of the seeds and production of the species,” Wang Xiping, a professor of life sciences at Beijing Normal University, was quoted as saying in the state-run media reports.

China is the world’s second-biggest corn producer, behind the United States, and the fourth-largest producer of soybeans. The Chinese are far and away the world’s largest consumers of soybeans, making the crop a vital element of the ongoing trade tensions between China and the US, which is the world’s second largest soybean exporter behind Brazil. Nearly all soybeans grown in both the US and Brazil are genetically-modified.