A wheat field beyond Beijing's North Third Ring Road is used in trial experiments for the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences. Photo: CFP
Traditional Chinese culture considers seeds a gift from nature to humanity as they are free and belong to all, but in a globalized world this may be idealism. The US Supreme Court in May ruled in favor of Monsanto against American farmers, saying that farmers couldn't replant patented genetically modified (GM) seeds as this would violate a licensing agreement.
After the ruling, global rallies against Monsanto broke out in 52 countries bringing together millions of activists on May 25. Chinese also echoed the global protests against the biotechnology company and some leading figures in anti-GM campaigns were allegedly detained, according to Weibo posts.
Monsanto's Chinese headquarters in Beijing got extra security on May 25, but no media covered the rally.
But in a local context, the most important question is this: How is the seed market in China and are food supplies secure?Foreign monopoly
To most consumers, corn and rice are simply corn and rice and few are able to tell organic varieties from non-organic ones. Almost none of them are able to further sub-categorize these or know that the grains and vegetables they eat may have been modified due to foreign origins.
"We have domestic seeds and foreign ones. But vegetables such as tomatoes, cucumbers, cabbages and peppers are basically from global corporations such as the Swiss-based Syngenta," Wang Zhenli, a senior horticulturist from Beijing Futong Environmental Engineering Ltd. told the Global Times.
"These foreign companies have branches and bases in China where they breed these seeds. Their seeds are better than domestic ones in fighting pests and diseases so they tend to be more competitive," Wang said.
China is the second largest country in the world in terms of seed demand, with a market value estimated at 60 billion yuan ($9.8 billion). The annual seed import amounts to around 15,000 tons, according to the People's Daily.
This large market has drawn foreign companies to China and though Wang's firm uses seeds without breeding them, he still feels there is the urgent need to break the seed monopoly.Better quality
"Seeds are more expensive than gold now. As seeds are mostly controlled by foreign companies, they can set the prices however they want. It is also really hard to tell whether seeds are genetically modified or not if they are not properly labeled. Developing our own seeds is a priority not only for price but for food safety," Wang said.
Research conducted by Chinese experts has showed that domestic companies are still weak compared with global corporations in the seed market.
8,700 companies had registered as seed companies by 2012 but no more than 80 of them have the ability to develop into a national enterprise to breed seeds. Not a single Chinese firm has cracked five percent of market share and the sales of the top 20 companies together are still dwarfed by Monsanto.
After Chinese authorities amended the regulation on seeds to raise the bar for entering the seed industry, the field decreased to 6,296 companies, the People's Daily reported. Gene protection
But the expansion of cross-country enterprise in China is not so legitimate, Wan Jianmin, chief of crops study at the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences, told the China Economic Weekly in 2011.
Wan told an story of how a global enterprise apparently found a soybean sample near a deserted factory in Shanghai and successfully obtained more than 100 patents in the US with one anti-virus gene found in the soybean.
The soybean, which originally hails from China, dominates the market in Brazil and Argentina. But if Chinese farmers want to grow this particular soybean, it would violate the company's patent and levies would apply, Wan said.
Worse than this, China has not patented or protected any kind of seed as intellectual property, according to State Intellectual Property Office (SIPO).
"Seeds themselves can't be patented but can be separately protected and recognized by the Ministry of Agriculture (MOA) and Ministry of Forestry. But if a certain gene was sampled or a technology was developed during the progress, then a person or company can apply for a patent on that," Sun Pingping, a press officer at SIPO, told the Global Times.
Sun said that a few Chinese companies or scientists have applied for patents related to seeds, but the total remains unclear.
"The genes of any plant are very valuable information and the MOA protects seeds as new species," Chen Hong, an expert of the office for the protection of New Varieties of Plants under MOA, told the Global Times.
A general manager of an organic grain farm in Lingbi county, Anhui Province, told the Global Times that the seeds they used were jointly developed by local universities. But these hybrid seeds have no patents because the technology used to breed them is already common practice.
Chen did in fact confirm that vegetable sales are mostly dominated by foreign companies but for staple grains including rice, Chinese varieties maintain a competitive edge in the market.
A researcher with the agriculture institute of Ningbo, Zhejiang Province cultivates new species. Photo: IC
"China has joined the International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants and has been following international routines in protecting species because they are vital and strategic for agriculture," Chen said.
The State Council has amended protection regulations on new plant varieties which took effect on March, 2013. In the new amended law, violations of property rights of plant varieties will be punished with a fine of up to 250,000 yuan, with criminal charges applying if the violations are severe.
The Chinese government also released a full blueprint for the country's modern seed industry's development from 2012 to 2020, according to the People's Daily.
According to the blueprint, three national bases for breeding grain seeds will be established in the Northwest and Northeast of China, as well as in Hainan Province. Outside these three bases, around 100 smaller seed production facilities will also be set up in core grain production area.
Financial subsidies are also being prepared to mobilize companies to produce and develop seeds, the blueprint wrote, adding that agricultural insurance would add categories for risky varieties such as hybrid corns and rice.Fighting seed democracy
However, the government's efforts are seen as insufficient or superficial in the eyes of researchers working to break the foreign monopoly.
"If China does not pave another way to develop agriculture but only follows foreign routines, or if patents on life are not overturned, there will be no hope for the country's agriculture," Gu Xiulin, a professor at Yunnan University of Finance and Economics who specializes in rural development, and an active campaigner against GM foods, told the Global Times.
In traditional practice, farmers keep seeds themselves after a season of growing, which Gu calls "seed democracy."
But under globalization and the market economy, domestic seeds kept by farmers are considered underdeveloped or as having low yields.
"Seeds developed by foreign companies are designed for industrialized agriculture. Under this condition, domestic seeds lack competitiveness. But the right path to develop agriculture is to let plants grow better in the wild, not in glass houses for massive production," Gu said.
Gu is strongly against current regulations for developing agriculture, believing that they are killing the operations of farmers working organically.
China imported 5,838 tons of soybeans in 2012, most of which were GM soybeans from the US, Argentina and Brazil. In the short term, China will continue importing GM grains to ensure its food security, according to Chinese authorities.
As far as Gu concerned, organic farming would be sufficient enough to support China's large population while preserving the eco-system.
Gu called for the authorities to protect organic farming practitioners as they are working to keep valuable gene information within the country.
"There are 600 million farmers in China, but they are not able to become stakeholders and have a say in the industry. The government should provide more technological and financial support to those still insisting on organic farming as an important part of the country's agricultural strategy," Gu said.Ding Xiaoxiao contributed to this story