China will push for the commercialisation of genetically modified soybeans over the next five years as it seeks to raise production efficiency, boosting output of the crop by the world’s top soy importer and consumer.
China, which has spent billions of euro researching GMO crops, has already embraced the technology for cotton but has not yet permitted the cultivation of any biotech food crops amid fears from some consumers over perceived health risks.
In its latest five-year plan for science and technology to 2020, China for the first time outlined specific GMO crops to be developed, including soybeans — used in food products such as tofu and soy sauce and for animal feed — and corn.
The blueprint, published on the Chinese government’s website, proposes “pushing forward commercialisation of new pest-resistant cotton, pest-resistant corn and herbicide-resistant soybeans”.
The use of the technology for corn was flagged in April when an agriculture official said Beijing may greenlight GMO crops in the next five years. Corn is used mostly in animal feed and industrial goods like starch and sweeteners; a move to biotech crops could be less contentious than with soybeans.
Support for new soybean varieties comes as China seeks to overhaul its crop structure. Farmers are being encouraged to switch from growing corn to soybeans and to rotate between crops.
However, analysts say boosting soybean output is unlikely without higher subsidies. China is expected to produce 12.5 million tonnes of soy during 2016/17, but will import a record 86 million tonnes, according to one forecast by US agriculture officials.
China permits the import of GMO soybeans for use in animal feed.
Herbicide-resistant varieties of soybean are already planted by most growers in the United States, the world’s top soy producer.
“You can’t manually kill weeds on large farms in the north-east,” said a Chinese seed company executive.
“If if you rotate between soy and corn, then herbicide-tolerant soybeans are needed for mechanisation,” he said, referring to the need for crops to be able to tolerate repeated exposure to weed killers applied by tractors.
However, cultivating GMO soybeans is likely to face strong resistance from consumers and a local industry that sells GMO-free soybeans at a premium to imported beans.
“The major production areas for key commodity crops shouldn’t be planted with GMOs,” said Liu Denggao, vice president of the Chinese Soybean Industry Association.
“Domestic soybeans are extremely desired and trusted by consumers for food.”
Commercialisation of GMO soy will take a backseat to GMO corn, Huang Dafang said, professor at Biotechnology Research Institute, in Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences.
The State has previously said it will introduce biotech industrial corn before moving to food crops like soya.
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