Crop Biotech Update

China Approves Biotech Rice and Maize in Landmark Decision

December 4, 2009

China Completes its Approval of a Troika of Key Biotech Crops – Fiber (Bt cotton), Feed (phytase maize) and Food (Bt rice)

by Dr. Clive James, Chair of ISAAA and author of the ISAAA Annual Brief on Biotech/GM Crops

In the ISAAA 2008 Brief, I predicted "a new wave of adoption of biotech crops….providing a seamless interface with the first wave of adoption, resulting in continued and broad-based strong growth in global hectarage". This prediction started to become a reality in the latter half of November 2009, when within the short span of one week, China's Ministry of Agriculture (MOA) granted two biosafety certificates, and approved biotech Bt rice, (rice is the most important food crop in the world that feeds half of humanity), and biotech phytase maize, (maize is the most important feed crop in the world). The two approvals have momentous positive implications for biotech crops in China, Asia and the whole world. It is important to note that the MOA conducted a very careful due diligence study, prior to clearing these two critically important biotech crops for full commercialization in about 2 to 3 years, pending completion of the standard registration field trials which applies to all new conventional and biotech crops. It is noteworthy that China has now completed approval of a troika of the key biotech crops in a logical chronology – first was FIBER (cotton), second was FEED (maize) and third was FOOD (rice). The potential benefits of these 3 crops for China are enormous and summarized below ·

  • Bt cotton. China has successfully planted Bt cotton since 1997 and now, over 7 million small farmers in China are already increasing their income by approximately US$220 per hectare (equivalent to US$1 billion nationally) due, on average, to a 10% increase in yield, a 60% reduction in insecticide application, both of which contribute to a more sustainable agriculture and prosperity of small poor farmers. China is the largest producer of cotton in the world, with 68% of its 5.6 million hectares successfully planted with Bt cotton in 2008.
  • Bt rice offers the potential to generate benefits of US$4 billion annually from an average yield increase of 8%, and an 80% decrease in insecticides, equivalent to 17 kg per hectare on China's major staple food crop, rice, which occupies 30 million hectares (Jikun Huang et al, 2005). It is estimated that 75% of all rice in China is infested with the rice-borer pest, which Bt rice controls. China is the biggest producer of rice in the world (178 million tons of paddy) with 110 million rice households (a total of 440 million people based on 4 per family) who could benefit directly as farmers from this technology, as well as China's 1.3 billion rice consumers. Bt rice will increase productivity of more affordable rice at the very time when China needs new technology to maintain self-sufficiency and increase food production to overcome drought, salinity, pests and other yield constraints associated with climate change and dropping water tables.
  • Phytase maize. China, after the USA, is the second largest grower of maize in the world (30 million hectares grown by 100 million households); it is principally used for animal feed. Maintaining self-sufficiency in maize and meeting the increased demand for more meat in a more prosperous China is an enormous challenge. For example, China's swine herd, the biggest in the world, increased 100 fold from 5 million in 1968 to over 500 million today. Phytase maize will allow pigs to digest more phosphorus, resulting in faster growth/more efficient meat production, and coincidentally result in a reduction of phosphate pollution from animal waste into soil and extensive bodies of water and aquifers.

The above advantages of Bt cotton, Bt rice and phytase maize, (importantly, all developed by Chinese public sector institutions) also offer similar benefits to other developing countries, particularly in Asia, (but also elsewhere in the world) which have very similar crop production constraints. Asia grows and consumes 90% of the production from the world's 150 million hectares of rice, and Bt rice can have enormous impact in Asia. It could not only contribute to increase productivity but could also make a substantive contribution to the alleviation of poverty for poor small farmers who represent 50% of the world's poor. Similarly, there are up to 50 million hectares of maize in Asia that could benefit from biotech maize. China's exertion of global leadership in approving biotech rice and maize will likely result in a positive influence on acceptance and speed of adoption of biotech food and feed crops in Asia, and more generally,  globally, particularly in developing countries. The approval and deployment by China of the most important food and feed crops in the world, biotech rice and maize, to maintain "self-sufficiency" as opposed to "food security", (the distinction is important) can serve as a model for other developing countries which could have substantive implications for:

  • a more timely and efficient approval process for biotech crops in developing countries;
  • new modes of South-South technology transfer and sharing, including public/private sector partnerships;
  • more orderly international trade in rice and reduction in probability of recurrence of 2008-type price hikes, which were devastating for the poor; and
  • shift of more authority and responsibility for developing countries to optimize "self sufficiency" and provide more incentive for their involvement to deliver their share of the 2015 Millennium Development Goals.

Finally, Bt rice and phytase maize should be seen as only the first of many agronomic and quality biotech traits to be integrated into improved biotech crops, with significant enhanced yield and quality, which can contribute to the doubling of food, feed and fiber production on less resources, particularly water and nitrogen, by 2050. The approval by China of the first major biotech food crop, Bt rice, can be the unique global catalyst for both the public and private sectors from developing and industrial countries to work together in a global initiative towards the noble goal of "food for all and self sufficiency" in a more just society.

Reference: Huang, J., R. Hu, R. Scott and C. Pray. 2005. Insect-Resistant GM Rice in Farmers' Fields: Assessing Productivity and Health Effects in China. Science: 308:5722 (688-690).