Will GM seed planting see China reduce its dependence on feed imports?

By Jane Byrne contact

- Last updated on GMT

© GettyImages/Jasonfang
© GettyImages/Jasonfang

Related tags: GMO, China, Corn, Rabobank

The next few years are likely to see planting of genetically modified (GM) corn seeds in China, according to a Rabobank report.

The Chinese government is emphasizing the important role of seed breeding technology in achieving food security, with the ultimate goal of being self-reliant in both seed technologies and germplasm sources, said the analysts.

Only Bt cotton and virus-resistant papaya are currently permitted for domestic planting in China, although large quantities of GM corn, soybeans and rapeseed are imported for feed use.

Since December 2020, the Chinese government has been accelerating regulation in the area of biotech breeding - in November 2021, Beijing proposed an overhaul of regulatory seed rules to pave the way for approval of GMO crops - and a large amount of government research funding has been flowing into the field.

Last month, Reuters reported that China was planning to approve three new GM corn varieties produced by domestic companies, citing a notice by the country's ministry of agriculture and rural affairs.

China is the largest producing country of non-GM soybeans, most of which are used to produce tofu and other soy-based food closely connected to Chinese cuisine. As long as the use of GM corn is restricted to animal feed, domestic planting of GM corn would face fewer barriers than GM soybeans in terms of social acceptance in China, found the Rabobank report.

Reduction in feed imports 

The introduction of GM corn planting would help to reduce farming costs, noted the analysts. As a result of higher unit output and lower cost, Chinese corn farmers’ profit would improve.

Benefiting from higher domestic production from GM corn planting, China would then be able to reduce its import dependence on feed grains, to some extent. Nevertheless, said the team, the Asian behemoth would still have to maintain a certain level of import quantities as complementary supply.

While GM technology can ensure improvements in the corn yield, the Rabobank team cautioned, however, that actual yield improvement at the farm level from such inputs should not be overestimated.

“Future yield improvement will also rely on the adoption ratio of GM corn seed,”​ added the Chinese ag market specialists.

Rabobank doubts whether GM corn seed could reach the same level of adoption in China as that in the US and Brazil given the different conditions in terms of farming and in social and technical aspects.

Negative sustainability aspects

In China, future GM corn planting will have both pros and cons, according to the report's conclusions.

On the one hand, GM seed could increase yield and lower pesticide use, which improves food self-sufficiency and meets environmental regulations. It will also incentivize greater farm consolidation, which can herald in smart farming practices, said Rabobank.

But GM planting also has negative sustainability aspects and they need to be carefully monitored and mitigated, said the analysts.

Genome editing-derived products

Rabobank said that GM seeds might only serve as a medium-term strategy in China.

“In the long run, the next generation of farming practices, such as digital farming and sustainable agriculture, will rely on genome editing-derived products more than on GM products,”​ forecast the analysts.

Related topics: Markets, Asia, Grains

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