China’s seed security not threatened by Russia-Ukraine conflict, major breakthroughs made
Published: Apr 07, 2022 11:01 PM
Aerial photo shows farmers planting rice seedlings in the field in Fanggezhuang Town of Luannan County in Tangshan, north China's Hebei Province, May 17, 2021.(Photo: Xinhua)

Aerial photo shows farmers planting rice seedlings in the field in Fanggezhuang Town of Luannan County in Tangshan, north China's Hebei Province, May 17, 2021.(Photo: Xinhua)

With global food prices skyrocketing, the protracted Russia-Ukraine conflict is causing serious risks for global food security. The importance of agricultural safety in China is being elevated to an unprecedented level, with seed security in particular, known as agricultural "chips," also topping the priorities.

Industry insiders and bio-technological experts have said that the looming global food crisis will not engulf China or pose a threat to its seed security, as about 95 percent of staple food grain reaped in the country such as rice and barley are cultivated with self-developed seeds, and major breakthroughs are also being achieved in "bottleneck" seed sectors such as corn, soybean, broiler chicken and breeding pigs, helping further reduce reliance on foreign imports amid rising geopolitical risks.

The battle for China's seed self-sufficiency has long been a key mission. Every year from September until May, more than 8,000 Chinese agricultural scientists and workers from 700 institutions gather at Nanfan Technology City in Sanya, South China's Hainan Province. 

Nanfan, meaning breeding in the south in Chinese, is the country's largest southern breeding base. It aims to create a new engine for innovation and development in the seed industry with science and technology as the core.

The breeding base, which is now home to branches of 607 agricultural firms including Yuan Long Ping High-Tech Agriculture Co and German crop breeder KWS, has created what some described as "miraculous" seeds, such as ultra-high yield strains and pest-resistant cotton.

Lu Yuping, vice president of Yuan Long Ping High-Tech Agriculture Co and general manager of start-up Longping Biotechnology (Hainan) Co, told the Global Times that the company has successfully developed a hybrid corn seed that can be harvested in all four seasons in a year, up from three seasons, marking a major step in bolstering corn output and "enriching the bowls of Chinese people."

Yuan Long Ping High-Tech Agriculture Co, named after renowned "father of hybrid rice" Yuan Longping, is one of the world's top ten leading seed companies in terms of global sales. Another Chinese company in the top ten is Syngenta Group, acquired and consolidated by state-owned ChemChina and Sinochem.

According to Lu, corn is currently the world's biggest grain crop and feed crop. The escalating situation in Russia and Ukraine, which jointly account for over 20 percent of global corn supplies, is pushing global food prices to record highs. Ukraine supplies around 30 percent of China's corn imports.

China's corn seed resources used to be neither abundant nor strong, and the output of China's self-developed corn and soybean seed was about 40-60 percent of that of foreign countries, Lu said. But thanks to genetic modification (GM) technology, the yield of corn and soybean could be boosted by 15-30 percent, because of the existence of new genes that have traits that can shield the grain from weeds and pests.

Li Xinhai, director general of the biotechnology research institute of the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences, told the Global Times that Chinese companies and institutes have developed genetically modified insect-resistant corn varieties, which have reached the national standard.

"These varieties are applicable in both Northeast and Huang-Huai-Hai regions of China. Such new developments have broken the monopoly of foreign seed companies on insect-resistant gene patents, laying solid foundations for industrialization in the future," Li said.

Wake-up call
The importance of seeds is self-evident, since they are the source of the entire agricultural production chain, and homegrown seeds could better shield the country's food safety against external uncertainties and supply chain disruption, industry insiders said. 

Lu said that the Russia-Ukraine crisis is a wake-up call for China's agricultural security, and the firm plans to triple its investment in seed R&D compared to last year.
The central government has also recently announced moves to boost the domestic food and seed industry. A spokesperson for Beijing-based agricultural firm Da Bei Nong (DBN) Group said that in line with China's seed revitalization strategy, its total investment in seed R&D hit 1.68 billion yuan in the last 10 years. Such spending accounts for 13 percent of its seed sales. 

"Only by mastering the core competitiveness of seeds can we control the relevant procedures. Whether it comes to division of interests, layout of the entire industry, or even pricing power, it is based on seed independence," Jiang Zhimin, deputy head of the Administrative Bureau of Sanya Yazhou Bay Science and Technology City, located in Nanfan Technology City, told the Global Times. 

China has advantages in germplasm and breeding technology for some crops like hybrid rice, while self-developed soybean and vegetable seeds have also marched into foreign markets and become globally competitive in recent years, according to Li.
Yuan Long Ping High-Tech Agriculture Co has set up a hybrid rice, R&D and breeding center in various countries including Pakistan, the Philippines, India, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Thailand, Ethiopia, and Nigeria, and 19 variants of hybrid rice have either been approved or registered abroad.

DBN Group told the Global Times that one of its GM soybean seeds, which is able to reduce output loss by 10 percent to 20 percent, has acquired a GM crop safety certificate from China's Ministry of Agriculture. 

The Group's GM soybean seed also gained a plantation certificate from Argentina in 2019, marking the first time that a GM seed developed by a Chinese company won such a permit in the international market.  

"We're now cooperating with South American partners to achieve a commercial bio breeding chain for planting GM soybeans in South America with Chinese technology, and then exporting them back to China for consumption," the DBN Group spokesperson said.

According to him, Chinese homegrown seeds can provide the basic foundation for guaranteeing China's food security.

The degree of external reliance on high-quality livestock, such as white feather chickens, has also been drastically reduced, with a self-sufficiency rate for core livestock seed resources reaching over 75 percent, Li said. 

In December 2021, China approved three varieties of white feather chickens, a big-sized broiler chicken variant that grows faster, ending a four-decade reliance on foreign seed resource imports. The breakthrough was aided by the "Jingxin No.1 breeding chip" which is able to conduct analysis based on big data that accelerates bio breeding procedures, Li noted. 

In 2019, China imported 66,000 tons of seeds, down from 72,700 tons of seeds in 2018, dada from the the China National Seed Trade Association showed. 

Technology breakthrough
Industry observers said that China's gap with Western countries is partly due to a lag in the set-up of complete genetic resources and gene editing technology, but China has been sparing no efforts to catch up with foreign peers in this area in recent years.

According to Lu, over the past three to four decades, the US has taken a leap in the technology and compiled a "dictionary" of genes, which China cannot access. Based on the dictionary, foreign companies are able to pinpoint which gene points are conducive to breeding new high-quality crops. 

"China has constructed the whole genome sequencing of rice, wheat, corn, soybean and cotton, which helps with conducting in-depth analysis into the diversity and variability of those crops," Li said. 

He noted that China has also set up genomic information databases that facilitate the discovery of important gene resources that control pest-resistant, stress-tolerant and high yielding features. 

In February, China released the No.1 central document, which set technological breakthroughs in seeds as a priority. It is the second consecutive year that the central government has put such an emphasis on supporting seed development, including biotech seeds.

"We expect more long-term policy support for bio breeding research and development, which will serve as the basis for achieving self-sufficiency," Li said. He also noted that another urgent issue is to turn technological advantages into industrial advantages, and create China's globally competitive "seed aircraft carriers" to drive industrial growth.