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Driven by the increasingly pressing need to provide a stable food supply for its surging population (1.3 billion and growing), China has decided to engineer its own "Green Revolution" by embarking on a massive $3.5 billion GM crops R&D; initiative, reports Science's Richard Stone. With this new biotechnology infrastructure in place, the Chinese hope to discover and patent their own genes "of great value" -- engaging in direct competition with the likes of Monsanto and ADM -- and to help their farms evolve "from high-input and extensive cultivation" to "high-tech and intensive cultivation."
Image from Haldini
The Chinese government had previously adopted a much more cautious wait-and-see approach to GM crops, granting approvals for only 6 species -- cotton, petunia, tomato, sweet pepper, poplar trees and papaya -- over the past decade. It had very explicitly rejected the commercialization of GM versions of staples like rice and corn. Unlike some of the other countries that were embracing these crops at the time, China, which had one of the world's largest numbers of farming communities (and still does, of course), had decided that safety and contamination concerns trumped any potential benefits.
The tide seems to have finally changed. The government, which is much more concerned now with environmental degradation, growing land use issues and chronic water shortages (among other problems), is drastically stepping up its research and commercialization efforts. So far, the country has largely focused on developing new GM versions equipped with genes that confer tolerance to herbicides and resistance to pests; government scientists will soon start working on developing varieties with better yields. Stone writes that the commercialization of GM rice, arguably the biggest prize of them all, is still a touchy subject (past efforts, such as the one by Arcadia Biosciences to develop a variety that requires less fertilizer, seem to have made little inroads):
Three years ago, Huang Jikun, director of CAS's Center for Chinese Agricultural Policy in Beijing, and colleagues reported that field trials of GM rice in China were going well--boosting yields and reducing pesticide use on plots--and predicted that the varieties were on the threshold of commercialization. But the Chinese government is reluctant to tinker with the country's most important crop and has put off commercialization. The new initiative might break the logjam, says Huang Jikun. "I hope the commercialization of GM rice will come within a couple of years," he says.
Although the central government has not released a budget figure for the new initiative, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Agriculture told Science that it would cost $3.5 billion over 13 years. Half is expected to come from local governments on whose land GM crops will be grown and from agricultural biotechnology companies. "It's a new way to support a big science project in China," says Huang Dafang. Another departure from other R&D; initiatives, he says, is that each funded program is expected to produce an economic payoff.
Although the Chinese population remains largely wary of GM technology, the government's strong backing will likely ensure that any opposition or protest movements are short-lived. While China may derive some benefits from this transgenic push over the long-term, it's also true that the potential risks could be significant -- especially given the program's scale. Let's just hope they don't rush into this.
Via ::Science: China Plans $3.5 Billion GM Crops Initiative (news website)