In early December 2014, China announced it would issue import approvals for three biotechnology products, one corn event and two soybean events, important to U.S. agriculture.   These decisions are encouraging steps toward normalizing agriculture trade with China.  The U.S. and Chinese governments need to work together to create a synchronous approval process that will ensure market access for U.S. produced biotech crops.

The most important announcement was approval for Syngenta AG’s Agrisure Viptera corn variety, also known as MIR 162.  It was submitted for approval in March 2010 and is in production in the U.S. and Argentina.  It found its way into the international supply chain and resulted in China rejecting shiploads of corn from the U.S.  Also approved was a biotech soybean event from Germany-based Bayer Crop Science AG that has been in the approval process for seven years. The approval enables Bayer Crop Science to start a full commercial launch in the U.S. in 2015.  The other soybean event was from DuPont Pioneer that combines a trait known as Plenish, designed to produce healthier oil, with a trait to control weeds.

These approvals address the most pressing immediate needs, but a long-term path has not been established that would reach the goal of normalizing trade.  In a November 2014 meeting in Beijing, China on the sidelines of the APEC (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation) Leaders Meeting, U.S. President Barrack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping reached a consensus to intensify science-based agricultural innovation and committed to strengthen dialogue to enable increased use of innovative technologies in agriculture.  The U.S. needs scientifically-based food safety regulations that apply not only here, but elsewhere in the world like China.  China has now become the leading U.S. agricultural export market and has as much interest in this subject as anyone else because many Chinese citizens have lost faith in their own regulators.

The two Presidents agreed to conduct an annual Strategic Agricultural Innovation Dialogue at a Vice-Ministerial level under the leadership of the Agriculture Working Group within the framework of the U.S.-China Joint Commission on Commerce and Trade (JCCT).  Established in 1983, the JCCT is the primary forum for addressing bilateral trade and investment issues and promoting commercial opportunities between the U.S. and China.  The U.S. hosted a Chinese delegation led by Vice Premier Wang Yang for the 25th session of the JCCT in Chicago on December 16-18.  The dialogue will hold its first meeting in early 2015 and the regulatory framework for biotech crops is expected to be discussed.

This information about agricultural biotechnology and the innovation dialogue was included in the 13-page joint fact sheet on the JCCT meeting.  This confirms that both governments understand the same outcomes from the meeting.   This understanding goes to the highest levels in both governments.

The Chinese regulators are expected to at least be open to the discussion.   President Xi in a speech a year ago supported China’s development of biotech crops for strengthening food security, but with a warning: “Be bold in research, careful in promotion.”  Chinese researchers have developed a number of crops and are now just waiting for the ‘go-ahead’ from regulators to commercialize them.  Only cotton, papayas and poplar trees have been approved so far.

The seven year wait for an import certificate for the Bayer Crop Science soybean event was probably not science based.  The new LL55 Liberty Link soybean helps farmers control weeds.  It is a sister to LL27 that has been approved for planting, harvesting and exporting around the world.  There is only a small genetic difference between the two, but the difference has the potential for new stacked trait varieties.  All other markets had given import approval years ago.

The Chinese authorities have given no explanation why the three import approvals came now.  Market observers note the Ukrainians announced that they would not be able to meet their corn export commitment to China of 1.1 million metric ton from the 2014 crop.  The other major corn exporters produce mainly biotech corn.  Policy analysts point to the JCCT meeting and the need to follow up on President Xi’s earlier commitment to explore new technology.  Soybean analysts observe that China purchases about two-thirds of the soybeans traded in world markets and cannot afford to curtail the use of any new technology.  Regardless of the reason, the approvals are an encouraging sign of new opportunities for policy changes.

President Xi’s interest in new agricultural technology and food security does not offset the continued reluctance of others to embrace biotechnology.  To the extent that the innovation dialogue can increase the flow of accurate information to the Chinese media, it can stimulate a discussion among Chinese consumers as well bring Chinese regulators up to speed on details of the technology.

Of course, much can be done to improve Chinese biotech product regulations under the existing framework.  China does not begin the approval process until a producing country has already approved an event.  China usually starts two years behind the producing country and is at risk of inadvertently importing an unapproved product.  The Chinese regulators often request an analysis that appears unnecessary or duplicates analyses already done for other countries.  When product approvals are delayed, like with LL55 Liberty Link soybeans, the industry is given little information about the delays.  China has a zero tolerance for importing unapproved events.

As the largest importer of U.S. agricultural products, China should expect ‘normalized’ trade policy relations with the U.S.  That does not mean that both governments will always agree, but it is to the advantage of both sides to work out differences.  Agricultural biotechnology is too important for both buyers and sellers to not come to some understanding.

Ross Korves is a Trade and Economic Policy Analyst with Truth About Trade &Technology (www.truthabouttrade.org). Follow us: @TruthAboutTrade and @World_Farmers on Twitter | Truth About Trade & Technology on Facebook.