China should strengthen genome editing and GM seeds to break Western monopoly, ensure food safety: experts
Efforts aim at reshaping Western-led monopoly in seeds market
Published: Dec 29, 2020 04:54 PM

A view of a lab under seed biotech firm DBN in Beijing on Tuesday. Photo: Li Xuanmin/GT

China should beef up research and development of cutting-edge seed breeding biotechnology in the next five years, such as genome editing, breeding by design and genetically modified variants, to protect the nation's agricultural progress and grain security, said leading agricultural specialists on Tuesday.

Grain security was identified as one of the priorities of China's government at a just-concluded tone-setting economic work conference.

New technologies, which could breed crops of higher yields in a short-time through safe, precise and efficient modification, is the key to break the Western-led monopoly and even a step ahead of them in the global seed market, the specialists said, while noting that China could gain an edge via early commercialization.

"China's development of future seed biotech is promising. The country's basic research in botany and agricultural crops is world-leading, exemplified by the plantation of rice and wheat. We also excel in the identification of special crop genes, which lays a solid foundation for future R&D," Li Jiayang, an academician with the Chinese Academy of Sciences and geneticist, said at a GM forum in Beijing on Tuesday.

Li identified several "transformative" biotech opportunities, including genome editing which allow scientists to change the DNA of some crops, breeding by design that aims to control all allelic variation for genes of agronomic precise genetic mapping as well as GM. 

All the technologies have yet to be permitted to explore commercialization in China, while GM variants have been approved in some Western nations including the US and Japan. Currently, most seeds in China are produced using hybridization and cell engineering. 

Seeds have been dubbed as "semiconductor microchips" of the agricultural sector. China has been facing an acute issue of over-reliance on seeds imported from abroad, which performed high yields and high-intensity compared with "native seeds" and have been eating the shares of homegrown seeds. 

At the recently concluded Central Economic Work Conference, Chinese top policymakers have vowed to bolster the growth of seed sector as parts of measures to improve food security. China will aim to make better use of science and technology to achieve a turnaround in the seed industry, reads a statement published after the meeting.

Zhu Jiankang, a member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the director of the Shanghai Center for Plant Stress Biology under Chinese Academy of Sciences, told the Global Times on Tuesday at the sideline of the forum, that while the traditional way of seed breeding may take more than a decade to develop a new crop, genome editing is able to complete such process within a few months or even weeks. 

"China bought large bulk of vegetable seeds overseas every year. If the country achieves breakthrough in future biotech innovations, 'native seeds' could evolve to be more competitive and even claim a foothold in overseas markets," Zhu said. 

Analysts noted that future generation of seeds will pave way for the country to fully modernize agriculture, which could significantly raise rural household income and accelerate China's urbanization process.  

China's grain self-sufficiency rate is about 85 percent. In 2018, China imported $475 million of seeds, among which vegetable seeds were valued at $228 million, according to an industry report. 

According to Zhu, Chinese agricultural specialists have successfully exploited genome editing biotech to create lettuce seeds which contain high quantity of vitamin C, soybeans that have three times of oleic acid than the average, and herbicide-resist rice. 

"Some developed economies including the US, the UK and Australia have elevated biotech to the level of national priority, with firms gaining plenty of patents in genome editing. There are other biotech roadmaps, and it is urgent for China to fast track the R&D to close the technological gap with early starters," Li noted. 

He urged Chinese policymakers to push for the industry's early commercialization. "The industrialization drives biotech progress."

In 2019, the market value of China's seeds market exceeded 119.2 billion yuan, up 1.5 percent year-on-year, according to data from research firm iimedia. The contribution of seeds technology to the increase in agricultural output is about 40 percent in China, while the percentage in the US is about 60 percent, according to data provided by Li.