Scene being set for commercial cultivation of GM crops

Chinese seed companies with capacity to produce GM crops are thrilled at revisions being proposed to four regulatory documents that could open the door to sales within just one or two years.

The proposed edits come after a tug-of-war of over a decade between the push to legalise domestic GM organisms and concerns over their safety and the economic implications for farmers.

The four documents regulate: the approval of crop varieties, their production and marketisation, naming, and the safety evaluation of GM crops (Link 1Link 2). The revisions would see new GM varieties enjoying a more rapid approval process. But stricter requirements would also be introduced for ensuring their safety and segregation.

The proposed changes are open for public consultation until 12 December. If adopted, large-scale cultivation of GM maize and soybean are expected to begin as early as 2023.

Several domestic companies developed and obtained safety certificates for such varieties years ago, and have been awaiting final approval to grow and sell them. Some estimate that within five years, market penetration of GM maize could reach 90%, creating a 10–36 billion yuan (US$1.5–5.6 billion) market. According to one estimate, the price of maize seed in China could soon double and be aligned with the US.

These two crops are expected to be prioritised for domestic production because of their high share of imports and relatively high cost of growing domestically.

Uncertainties in the global supply chain, due to trade conflicts with the US and Covid-19, as well as outbreaks of pests such as the fall armyworm, have moved policymakers in the direction of allowing GM crop cultivation. It’s unclear if the new varieties will be allowed for human consumption or only for animal feed and industrial use.

The move is not surprising given the state has already set the tone of pursuing an “orderly” promotion of GM crop commercialisation, and has encouraged their innovation in key policy documents, such as the 14th Five Year Plan published earlier this year.

See our recent reporting on maintaining the genetic diversity of crops in China.