When talking about agriculture in China, you are likely hear two statistics over and over again: China is home to 22% of the world's population and has less than 10% of the world's arable land. In a country that has vowed to maintain 95% self-sufficiency in agriculture, this gap has put agricultural reform at the top of the China's political agenda. And it makes China one of the prime spots in the world for the adoption of genetically modified (GM) crops.

Over the past five years, research into GM crops has become a pillar of China's agricultural reform strategy. Government investment in the technology has increased steadily, and more and more multinationals are investing in their own research facilities, rushing to establish a foothold in a huge potential market. "It's important that we are an active participant in China," says Andrew McConville, head of corporate affairs for the Asia Pacific region for Syngenta, an international agricultural technology company.

But while scientists and government leaders have advocated for the technology, the adoption of GM crops for commercial cultivation has been hindered by growing popular concern over their safety. "There is a deal of public tension," notes McConville. "I think the government is making sure the safety and regulatory regimes are in place for adoption — and they are trying to make sure that consumers are brought along on the journey."

Due, in part, to consumer concerns about the technology, GM crops have spread throughout the world unevenly. They have met staunch resistance in the European Union but have been embraced with enthusiasm in the United States. Today, 80% of the corn, soybeans and cotton planted in the U.S. have been genetically engineered. Brazil is the second-largest grower of GM crops, with GM comprising 75% of the country's soybeans and 56% of its maize. Compared to these two GM powerhouses, China's adoption rates are more modest, having approved the commercial cultivation of only two crops — cotton and papayas — and a GM version of the poplar tree to help with reforestation. Soon, however, experts expect the country will be expanding the scope of its GM crops, despite popular concern over the safety of GM products entering the food stream.

The Challenge

China's population is expected to grow to 1.39 billion by the year 2015 and the government estimates that national consumption of grain will reach 572.5 million tons by the year 2020. This is complicated by unpredictable weather patterns and an increasingly affluent population that is eating an increasingly large amount of meat. More meat consumption means China will have to increase its production of feedstock even further. The inflation of food prices, also, is a top government concern.

"We have 1.3 billion people to feed with limited land resource," Wen Jiabao, China's premiere, said in a 2011 interview issued in the Chinese publication Seeking Truth Magazine. "Food security remains our biggest concern. There is no other way to address the challenge than relying on technologies to transform traditional agriculture, such as high-yield variety breeding and GM technology."

As part of China's 12th five-year plan, released in 2011, the country established a 540 million ton annual yield goal for grain production. In 2011, the country reported a record 571 million tons of grain production. China's efforts, however, have been more successful in some crops than in others. For example, the country is a net importer of soybeans. According to the State Administration of Grain, the country expects to import 56 million metric tons of soybeans during 2011-2012. And, despite record production of corn in 2011, the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates China will have to import 4 million tons of corn to meet demand this year.

"The Chinese government places extraordinarily high importance on achieving success in agriculture," notes McConville. And China's government officials have not been all talk: In 2008, the country introduced the National Transgenic New Variety Development Project, promising an investment of $3.8 billion by 2020. The investment, McConville points out, comes along with a push to improve agricultural technology across the board. Investment also went into the promotion of tractors and backhoes. The goal is simple, says Dan Cekander, the director of grain research at Newedge USA. "They need to increase their yields."

While GM crops are not the only answer to achieving this goal, they will likely be an important part of the recipe, according to McConville. In trying to reduce food imports and approach the goal of 95% self-sufficiency, GM crops offer a number of advantages. They can help increase yields and can be engineered to resist pests and disease. They can also be engineered to withstand harsh growing environments.

Clive James, founder of the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications, takes an almost evangelical tone when he talks about biotech crops. "We don't call them GM crops, because that could be confusing," he says. ISAAA's mission is to provide information on the safety and growth of biotech crops and let people decide for themselves. "In the next 50 years, the global population will consume twice as much food as they have since the beginning of agriculture," James notes. "You have to convey to the rest of the world that you have this huge challenge and then you can talk about solutions."

According to James, biotech crops can reduce the amount of pesticides used by farmers because they are already resistant to many common pests. They can also help alleviate poverty. "[Biotech (BT)] rice can increase the income of a small farmer by $80 to $100 per hectare," James says. "That's a huge amount for these farmers." For China, he adds, the annual benefit could reach US$4 billion.

Early Adoption and Backlash

Although China has moved cautiously in approving GM crops for human consumption, the country was one of the world's earliest adopters of the technology when it came to cotton. Bt cotton naturally produces Bacillus thuringiensis, a type of bacteria which, in some forms, acts like an insecticide that is deadly to a particularly pesky parasite called bollworm. "China was one of six pioneer countries in 1997," James says. Today, China has planted 5.5 million hectares of cotton and Bt cotton comprises 71% of the country's overall cotton production. According to the ISAAA, Bt cotton increases cotton yields by 10%. "Also, it generates $220 per hectare of additional income for small farmers," James notes. "From 1997 to 2010, China benefitted from an increase in income of US$11 billion."

Since then, however, China has slowed its adoption pace considerably. The country has approved the commercial production of GM papayas, which are resistant to a deadly virus (called the Papaya Ringspot Virus.) In 2008, authorities approved the use of one type of GM soybean. In 2008 and 2009, the government also issued certificates of approval for two types of GM rice and one type of maize — opening the door for the rice and maize to be tested in China and maybe, eventually, to be commercialized.

"It is interesting if you look at the chronology of the technologies adopted by China," says James. "First came cotton, which is primarily a fiber crop so you don't have to be so concerned about food safety issues. The first crop was fiber." With soybeans and maize, which James expects to gain commercial approval in 2013, China moved into feedstock. In addition, he notes, China is pursuing research in a number of other areas. "They have a program to increase the baking quality of wheat; they've also got a program to look at a gene that will control the sprouting of grain," he adds. "They are using crop biotechnology in a very significant way with very large resources compared to other countries, looking to develop their own home-grown technology."

The approval of GM rice in 2009, however, caught the attention of consumers and GM opponents. "A study done by Qinghua University found that 70% of people surveyed were opposed to the commercialization of GM rice," says Fang Lifeng, director of Greenpeace China's agriculture campaign, a group that has led the movement against GM crops in China.

"There is no scientific evidence that GE [genetically engineered] is safe," notes Fang. In the 16 years since genetically modified crops have been developed, Fang says, there have been no empirical studies concerning their safety or impact on the surrounding environment. "This is a public concern."

Studies by Greenpeace also demonstrated that some GM crops had already made it into the food stream. "We did some investigating in 2010 and found GM rice seed in Hubei, Hunan and Guangzhou, and GM rice available for sale in Fujian and Hubei. It is already on the market," notes Fang. "It is not approved and it is not legal." Public concern is great enough that Greenpeace offers an iPhone app in Chinese that will tell users which stores have been known to stock genetically engineered food.

In response, Chinese leaders recently issued draft legislation that would limit GM research, field experiments, production, sales, imports and exports of GM grain seeds. The draft states that organizations and individuals would not be allowed to apply GM technology to major crops without official approval. In theory, this could limit the adoption of GM rice. The language of the law, however, is vague enough that GM experts still feel the advance of GM crops will come, if slowly.

Avoiding GM

While opponents see the spread of unapproved seeds as a sign of the pitfalls of GM crops, Syngenta's McConville has another take on the movement of illegal GM seeds in China. "We're very committed to a robust regulatory framework," he says. "But, if GM seeds are as prevalent in China as Greenpeace says they are, the valid question to ask is, 'Why?'" If they are spreading, he suggests, it must be because farmers are eager to get their hands on the seeds, which are likely available on the black market (Black-market sales of GM seeds have also been a problem in India.) No matter where they ultimately get the seeds from, farmers would still have to actively seek them out.

"Small farmers across the world have a mind of their own," adds James. "And they're careful about the technology they adopt. If it doesn't work, they don't use it."

The illegal spread of seeds, however, raises another question when it comes to GM crops in China. "A clever seed breeder can copy or breed most things," says McConville. Collaborations could put the intellectual property rights of international companies into the hands of Chinese copycats and seeds developed domestically could be similarly copied. Currently, seed research and development cannot be done in China by a wholly-foreign-owned company. International companies only conducting research, however, are welcome. Opponents feel this could give away the secrets of China's food supply. "GE rice developed by Chinese scientists uses techniques and methods developed by foreign multinational companies." Fang notes. "This is bad for China's food security."

Even some of the GM crops already adopted in China have run into trouble, Fang points out. Bt cotton, for example, was adopted to resist a number of prevalent pests. But another pest, called Mirid bugs, seem to have moved in to fill the gap. According to an article released in Nature Magazine in 2010, the Mirid bugs have forced farmers to start relying on pesticides once again.

The challenges and China's slow adoption pace, however, have not deterred international agriculture companies from investing in the country. "We were the first company to set up a research facility in China," says Syngenta's McConville. The company decided to go ahead with its US$60 million facility, McConville notes, because of the size and importance of the Chinese market. Monsanto has also announced plans to expand its partnership with China National Seed Corporation.

"Eventually, we will see the adoption of these technologies," says McConville. "And we believe that a lot of that technology will be developed in China, by China, for China."