China’s agriculture minister said the country must seek “self-sufficiency in agricultural technology” to ensure that its people have enough to eat, sending fresh signals that the government is preparing to back greater commercialization of genetically modified (GM) food.
Responding to a question from state broadcaster CCTV on Monday, Tang Renjian said China must “make a strong turn for the better in the seed industry” and “use modern farming technology and equipment to strengthen support for food security.”
Such technology is the “basic way” of resolving China’s long-standing scarcity of water and arable land, he said, without mentioning GM organisms by name.
China is the world’s second-largest seed market, but it lags significantly behind industry leaders like the U.S. in developing certain GM crops. Beijing views seed technology as a potential “stranglehold” that foreign adversaries could use as leverage over the country.
Agricultural self-sufficiency has risen high on the government’s agenda since national leaders pledged at a key economic conference in December to tackle stranglehold technologies, including those in the farming sector.
Nonetheless, government leaders will have to win over what appears to be a highly skeptical Chinese public. A survey of some 2,000 Chinese consumers published in 2018 in the peer-reviewed journal Nature found that 46.7% of respondents held a negative view of GM food, compared with just 11.9% who held a positive view.
Grain demand in China will continue to steadily increase during the next five years due to population growth and rising consumption, Tang said at a press conference Monday.
He also noted a “marked increase in uncertainty and instability in the external environment,” adding: “We cannot afford to be complacent for even a moment, but instead must do everything possible to heighten (food) security, … produce more grain, and store more grain,” he said.
On Sunday, China’s ruling Communist Party and the State Council, the country’s cabinet, issued new proposals on the revitalization of agriculture and rural areas, continuing an 18-year pattern in which the leadership’s first official publication after the Lunar New Year focuses on farming and rural livelihoods.
Tang reiterated that China’s food supply remained a “tight balance.” According to the proposals, the country maintained annual grain output of more than 1.3 trillion jin throughout the most recent five-year plan, which ran until 2020. A jin is equivalent to half a kilogram.
Additionally, the document proposes “accelerating” the latest survey and collection of living seeds and animal tissues for agricultural use; “strengthening” the construction of national tissue banks for crops, poultry and livestock, and seafood; and “providing long-term, stable support” for breeding research.
Wan Jianmin, a vice president of the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences, said last month that China’s own selectively bred crop strains cover more than 95% of the country’s arable land, according to the state-run Xinhua News Agency.
At Monday’s press conference, Vice Agriculture Minister Zhang Taolin said China is already fully self-sufficient in rice and wheat, 85% self-sufficient in aquatic products, and 75% self-sufficient in livestock and poultry. However, China lags behind developed economies on production efficiency of other farm products, including corn, soybeans, and pork, he said.
The country’s corn and soybean yields per unit of area were only around 60% of the U.S., and foreign variants accounted for 13% of the total area sown to vegetables, Zhang said. The efficiency of hog breeding and the annual milk yield of dairy cows were only about 80% of “advanced international levels,” he added.
At the December conference, Chinese leaders also pledged to “resolve seed and arable land issues” this year through “respect for science,” a phrase widely seen as a signal of implicit support for GM crops.
Since then, the government has issued biosafety certificates for new strains of GM corn and soybeans, laying some of the groundwork for their future commercialization.
Agriculture officials have also dropped a series of hints that GM will play a more significant role in China’s food security, with Tang last month likening seeds to “microchips” and a high-level ministry inspector saying new technologies are the “basic way” to ensure that the world’s most populous nation has enough food to eat.
This is an original article written by Huang Shulun and Matthew Walsh of Caixin Global, and has been republished with permission. The article can be found on Caixin’s website here.
(Header image: Farmers harvest rice in Chongqing, Oct. 21, 2020. People Visual)