Biotechnology in China:  Agriculture and Biotechnology

China was initially hesitant regarding biotechnology, but has reversed its position and has subsequently experienced double-digit growth in the adoption of new agriculture bio-technologies, according to Dr. Neal van Alfen, Dean of the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, University of California - Davis, in a speech before the 16th National Agricultural Biotechnology Council (NABC) in June 2004.  Dr. Alfen also emphasized that China has gone from being one of the slowest to one of the fastest nations in the adoption of new biotechnologies.  China’s Minister of Agriculture Du Qinglin also stated in July 2006 that science and technology should contribute up to 63% of the growth of Chinese agriculture sector by 2020. The minister outline five areas that will be the focus of China in attempt to take advantage of technology in agriculture, including GM cotton and rice, safe farm products, agricultural equipments, and research institutions.

GM Crops Development

In 2004, China ranked fifth in the world in terms of genetically modified organism (GMO) cultivated acreage.  GMO plants developed or used in China include pest resistant cotton – China’s largest GMO crop – and tobacco, peanuts, sweet peppers, papayas and vaccine-carrying tomatoes. 

In 2002, China planted 700,000 hectares of transgenic cotton (China is the only Asian country that grows GM crop).  That figure, according to Dr. Alfen, has now soared to 2.8 million hectares, making China the 5th largest grower of transgenic cotton after the U.S., Argentina, Canada and Brazil where the planting figures are 42.8 million, 13.9 million, 4.4 million and 3.0 million hectares, respectively, as of 2003.  He further noted that China will likely claim the number four position after 2005.  In 2004, genetically enhanced cotton was planted on two-thirds of the farmland planted with cotton in China.

According to The Plant Journal 2002, the increased production and revenue with GM crops were significant, with Bt cotton yields in China 5.8% greater than regular cotton in 1999, 54.7% higher in 2000 and 10.9% in 2001.  The revenue per hectare for Bt cotton was $351 higher in 1999, $367 in 2000 and $277 in 2001.

To promote Chinese rice's competitiveness in the world market, China commenced development GM rice in 2004. Although the product has not been allowed on the market, study done by US and Chinese researchers showed that GM rice with low production costs could benefit poor farmers and even improve consumers' health.  A minimum of $200 million has been invested on GM rice annually in China; this figure is slated to increase to $500 million.

A 2003 report from the 25th International Conference of Agricultural Economists on the economic impacts of adoption of GM crops in China pointed out that “the economic gains from GMO adoption are substantial: in the most optimistic scenario, where China commercializes both Bt cotton and GM rice, the welfare gains amount to an additional annual income of about US$5 billion in 2010.”  The report further concluded that “Given the importance of rice for agricultural production, employment and food budget shares, the gains from GM rice adoption are orders of magnitude larger than the Bt cotton gains."

Revenue Source of China Biotechnology

Datamonitor report in 2004 revealed that product sales (55.5%) were the main revenue source of China’s Biotechnology market, followed by research funding (30.6%) and royalties (7.9%). Scientists in China are working on more than 50 plant species with a wide ranging list of GM plants and has pledged to ease red tape surrounding clearance of biotechnologies. Between 1996 and 2000 there were 353 applications for approval of field trials, environmental releases or commercialization of GM plants and animals in China.  Of these, 141 were approved by the Chinese Office of Genetic Engineering Safety Administration. This has attracted FDI to the GM production industry even though Chinese government regulations still restrict this. 

Development in Government Regulatory Approval

The year 2004 was significant in China’s regulatory approval with the government completing environmental and food safety testing on seven GM crop strains – all from US biotech giant Monsanto.  Safety certificates were granted to five Monsanto strains:  Roundup Ready soybeans, one version of Roundup Ready corn, YieldGard Corn Borer, Bollgard cotton and Roundup ready cotton, but approval was deferred on two others. The Chinese government also noted that processing was under way for 11 other applications from DuPont, Dow AgroSciences, both of the U.S., Bayer of Germany and Syngenta in Switzerland for genetically modified rapeseed and maize.

Import to China

China’s largest import of GM foodstuffs is another Monsanto developed soybean seed.  China imported 20.74 million tons of soybeans in 2003, mostly from the U.S.  China was originally hesitant about GM soybeans, but as explained by Duan Wude, Director of the Ministry of Agriculture of China’s Research and Development Center, “What really drove us to the move was our domestic demand… If we don’t import soybeans, we’ll have to import bean oil, which means we give up the profits of bean processing.”  China also doesn’t have much choice in the matter as GM crops account for 90 percent of transactions in soybeans with almost all of this coming from the U.S., Brazil and Argentina.   

Corn is the second GM product China would purchase from the US: in July 2006, 52,000 tons of GM corn was bought by Xiwang Sugar Holdings Co. Ltd. Many consider this a turning point that opens the door to a lucrative market for US GM product producers. The positive testing on GM products undertaken by the Chinese government, as well as high demand for agriculture products have granted the GM products a large potential market in China. The most populous nation, China has power to wield in the GM product global market, and given the Chinese government’s current will, biotechnology in agriculture.
Future of biotechnology in China

The APEC Biotechnology Conference held in July 24 2006 in China mentioned the importance of the member countries’ partnering in developing biotechnology in the Asia-Pacific region. Despite the lack of visible biotech companies, the sound relationship with neighbor countries will help to empower biotechnology to thrive in China as well as partner countries, such as Thailand, New Zealand, and the Philippines.   

The China biotechnology market has many limitations due to poor quality control and lack of good management. However, this suggests an opportunity for foreign investors to co-operate and thrive. Besides Chinese able and overseas-trained scientists and China's receptive attitude towards modern technology, foreign firms are increasingly attracted by low costs and sizable potential market. 

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