After several years of hesitation the Chinese government has concluded that insect resistant Bt biotech rice is safe for production and use and granted a safety certificate for commercial production. This will be the first large scale biotech food staple to be produced and consumed in China. The government has also approved a biotech corn that is high in phytase which aids in the uptake of phosphorus by swine. Commercial production for both will not likely begin before 2012 after registration of the biotech seed varieties at provincial agricultural departments and field trials.

China is the world’s largest producer and consumer of rice with 72 million acres devoted to rice annually, 75 percent of which is infested with rice-borers. According to USDA estimates, in the 2009/10 marketing year China will produce 136 million metric tons (MMT) of milled rice, 31.5 percent of world production, and consume 132.5 MMT, 30.3 percent of world consumption. China is expected to export 1.3 MMT of rice, 4.4 percent of world trade. Most rice exports go to South Korea and West Africa, but some moves to EU countries that are hesitant to accept biotech foods. Unauthorized biotech rice has been found in shipments of rice to the EU, even though China currently has a zero tolerance for unapproved varieties.

The Bt rice was developed by Huazhong Agricultural University. A Reuters’ story quoted Jikun Huang, the Chief Scientist with the Chinese Academy of Sciences, that it would reduce pesticide use by 80 percent while raising yields up to 8 percent. That is consistent with a study reported in 2005 that rice yields increase 6-9 percent in areas with major insect problems. China has been growing insect resistant Bt cotton since 1997. It now accounts for 68 percent of China’s 13.6 million acres and requires about half the pesticides per acre as non-biotech cotton.

India and Iran have been reported in recent years as developing biotech rice, and the Philippines may by 2012 adopt a vitamin A enriched golden rice developed by the International Rice Research Institute based in the Philippines. The Philippines already grows about one million acres annually of insect resistant biotech corn.

The phytase corn was developed by China’s Academy of Agricultural Science and Origin Agritech Ltd, the third largest seed producer in the country. Origin is also doing research in nitrogen efficiency and drought tolerance traits. Phytase allows hogs to breakdown phytic acid and release 60 percent of corn’s phosphorus not otherwise available, enhancing growth in hogs and reducing phosphorus in animal waste. Corn yields per acre are not expected to increase. The addition of phytase to swine feed is mandatory in Europe, Southeast Asia, South Korea, Japan, and other countries for environmental purposes. This technology may also be of value in these other corn markets.

In 2009 China is expected to produce 48.5 MMT of pork on a carcass weight basis, just under half the world total of 100.2 MMT according to U.S. estimates. Chinese production has fully recovered from disease problems that hurt production in 2007. China is the second largest corn producer after the U.S., with production of 6.5 billion bushels on 73 million acres planted.

The Chinese approval process for biotechnology crops for domestic production and use involves five steps: research, intermediary experiment, environmental release, productive testing, and safety certification. New varieties must pass a safety evaluation by the National Biosafety Committee and be issued a safety certificate by the Ministry of Agriculture’s Division of GMO Biosafety and IPR. Two other crops, bacterial blight resistant rice and high oil canola, are at the productive testing phase where the insect resistant rice and high phytase corn were before the recent announcements. According to the U.S. Agricultural Attaché in Beijing, crops in the field trial stage of development (stage 3 – environmental release) include insect resistant corn, high lysine corn, wheat resistant to pre-harvest germination, and insect resistant soybeans.

The release of the biotech rice is particularly important because Asia grows and consumes 90 percent of the world’s rice. The Bt rice was developed totally in China and may be more easily accepted in the region than a technology developed in the U.S. or elsewhere. China’s rice yields per acre have been below the 1970-2007 trend since 2001 and acreage has declined about 6 percent over the last ten years. Total production has been trending downward in recent years except for 2008 when record yields pushed production up to a ten year high of 135.1 MMT.

The approval of phytase corn has improved prospects for more timely agreement on other corn traits like insect resistance. Chinese corn yields have also been below trend in recent years despite a record yield in 2008, while corn acreage has increased 16 percent in the last ten years. Average corn yields are about 60 percent of U.S. corn yields and insects like corn borer have been identified as one of the limiting factors for yields. China’s 2009 corn yields were hurt by drought in key growing areas showing a need for drought tolerance which is now being researched in the U.S. While China is the largest producer of corn in Asia, corn is also important in the rest of the region. Only the Philippines has approved insect resistant biotech corn, but approval in China will encourage other corn growing countries to reconsider their position.

An April 2009 publication from the Economic Research Service of USDA, China’s Ongoing Agricultural Modernization: Challenges Remain After 30 Years of Reform, explained, “Productivity growth in China over the last 30 years benefited greatly from advances in plant and animal breeding, but there is still ample capacity to improve yields and other crop characteristics through continued research and extension.” China has pursued a “go-it-alone” strategy for biotech crops with in-country control. China’s production challenges are similar to other countries, and it could progress more rapidly by drawing on conventional and biotech breeding work done in India, Brazil, the U.S. and the EU, particularly for traits in early development like drought tolerance.

The focus in China is on biotech traits in addition to conventional breeding and improved agronomic practices. Biotech traits are another source of increasing yields while reducing insecticide use and improving livestock feed efficiencies.