China approved imports of eight genetically modified (GM) crops, permitting shipments of GM alfalfa for the first time after a decade-long wait, the country’s agriculture ministry said on Friday.
Global seed makers and the U.S. government welcomed the decision after Beijing’s slow approval process disrupted grain exports and launches of crops that need clearance from China because it is one of the world’s biggest agriculture markets.
The approvals are “a positive step towards resolving the longstanding challenges biotechnology developers face in obtaining import approvals in China,” said the Biotechnology Innovation Organization in Washington, the world’s largest trade association for biotech companies like Bayer AG.
Beijing has a cautious approach to GM technology and has not approved any major food crops for cultivation, despite President Xi Jinping’s backing of the technology. China allows the import of GM crops used in animal feed, but trade partners say the process is not always based on science and is often driven by politics.
Among those approved were two glyphosate-resistant types of alfalfa first submitted for approval more than 10 years ago. The crops are owned by Land O’Lakes subsidiary Forage Genetics International, after being co-developed by the company and Monsanto, now owned by Bayer, said Glenda Gehl, Forage Genetics’ vice president and general manager.
U.S. farmers already grow the alfalfa, but Beijing’s approvals open the door for expanded plantings in Western states that supply export markets, she said.
“This is a huge opportunity for alfalfa growers across the U.S.,” Gehl said.
Access to biotechnology is especially important because of heightened concerns about global food security and high commodity prices, said Alexis Taylor, a U.S. Department of Agriculture under secretary, in an e-mail to Reuters.
China also approved a Corteva Inc glyphosate-resistant canola, DP73496, first developed by DuPont Pioneer and submitted for approval in July 2012.
Corteva plans to launch its Optimum GLY canola hybrids in North America and Australia, and is still pursuing other import approvals, said spokesperson Kris Allen.
Beijing promised to speed up access to its market under the Phase 1 trade deal concluded with the United States in 2020. The approvals come after the first meeting between U.S. President Joe Biden and China’s Xi in November amid efforts to repair tense relations.
China could use the approvals as a goodwill gesture and as justification for a potential decision to cultivate more GM crops domestically, said John Baize, president of U.S. consultancy John C. Baize & Associates.
“They can say to the U.S.: ‘See, you wanted us to speed up our approval. We did,'” Baize said.
China also cleared two GM sugar cane traits developed in Brazil, along with a BASF SE herbicide-resistant cotton.
The crops were allowed to be imported for processing in China from Jan. 5 for the next five years.
China also approved the safety of three domestically developed GM products, including insect- and glyphosate-resistant corn from Yuan Longping High-tech Agriculture Ltd and Hangzhou Ruifeng’s insect-resistant soybean.