Agriculture and environment: China’s food security depends on self-reliance in seed production

The soybean plant is a native to China. Scientists believe that modern cultivated soybean was domesticated from wild soybean 6000–9000 years ago. There is historical evidence that domesticated soybean was introduced from north-eastern China 2500 to 3000 years ago, leading to the agricultural revolution in the Eastern Zhou Dynasty.  There is an abundance of archeological evidence that suggests the Yellow River basin as the origin of soybean domestication. However, biological evidence based on phylogenetic and clustering analyses, and using chloroplast and mitochondrial DNA, identifies the Yangtze region in Southern China as the most genetically diverse and the likely birthplace of soybean domestication.

New Phytologist

China will plant over 973,000 ha of soybeans and 300,000 ha of oilseed crops on state-owned farms this year, according to plan to increase production and food security.

In a recent visit to a seed lab in Hainan province, Xi Jinping called for consistent efforts in developing this industry in the country; China’s dependence rate on foreign grains is estimated at 19%. ____________________________

Seeds and food security

The Global Times reports:

Domestically developed seeds, a crucial part of China’s food security, have gained the attention of the top leadership, as security of agricultural “chips” tops the government agenda along with various other aspects of economic security ranging from energy supplies to tech self-sufficiency. 

President Xi Jinping stressed the crucial role of “Chinese seeds” in ensuring the country’s food security.

China’s food security can only be safeguarded when seed resources are firmly held in our own hands, Xi said on 10 April 2022 while inspecting a seed laboratory in Sanya, South China’s Hainan Province.

“To ensure that China’s seed resources are self-supporting and under better control, self-reliance must be achieved in seed technology,” he said.

Buoyed by the news, seeds production-related shares roared 9 percent on Monday, according to data from Chinese financial information provider Hithink RoyalFlush Information Network. By comparison, the flagship Shanghai Composite Index closed down 2.61 percent.

Industry insiders and biotechnological experts have said that the looming global food crisis amid the protracted Ukraine crisis will not engulf China or pose a threat to its seed security, as about 95 percent of staple food grains reaped in the country such as rice and barley are cultivated using self-developed seeds. 

Major breakthroughs are also being achieved in the “bottlenecked” seed sectors such as corn, soybean, broiler chicken, and breeding pigs, helping further reduce reliance on imports amid rising geopolitical risks.

Home-developed seeds

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

According to Jiang, the Yazhou Bay Seed Laboratory was established in Nanfan Science and Technology City in May 2021, dedicated to breeding innovation, regulatory services, and cooperation and exchanges.  

A farmer waters rice seedlings in Taizhou, East China’s Zhejiang Province. Photo: VCG

Jiang said the lab will also give each seed an ID that can be detected, helping better protect seed intellectual property. The battle for China’s seed self-sufficiency has long been a key mission. Every year between September and May of the following year, 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 agricultural breeding base in South China. It aims to create a new framework for innovation and development in the seed industry with science and technology at its core.

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

Lu Yuping, vice president of Yuan Long Ping and general manager of the start-up Longping Biotechnology (Hainan), told the Global Times that the company has successfully developed a corn seed hybrid that can be harvested all 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 Company, named after the renowned “father of hybrid rice” Yuan Longping, is one of the world’s top 10 leading seed companies in terms of global sales. Another Chinese company in the top 10 is Syngenta Group, acquired and consolidated by state-owned ChemChina and Sinochem.

During his inspection in Sanya on Sunday, Xi called for carrying forward the spirit of scientists and researchers of the older generations, including Yuan Longping. Xi also called for sustained efforts in developing the country’s seed industry. 

According to Lu, corn is currently the world’s biggest grain and feed crop. The escalating situation between 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. The country imported 7.32 million ton of corn from Ukraine in 2021.

China’s corn seed resources used to be neither abundant nor robust, and the output of China’s self-developed corn and soybean seeds was about 40-60 percent that of foreign countries, Lu said. But thanks to genetic modification technology, corn and soybean yields could be boosted by 15-30 percent, because of the existence of new genetic advancements that can make the grain resistant to 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 met the national standard.

“These varieties are cultivatable in both the Northeast and North 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

Lu said that the Russia-Ukraine crisis is a wake-up call to China’s agricultural security, and the firm plans to triple its investment in seed R&D compared to 2021.

The central government also recently announced moves to boost the domestic food and seed industry. A spokesperson for Beijing-based agricultural firm Da BeiNong (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. 

China has advantages in germplasm and breeding technology for some crops like hybrid rice, while domestically developed soybean and vegetable seeds have long been monopolized by foreign markets and have become globally competitive in recent years, according to Li.

Yuan Long Ping High-Tech Agriculture Company 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 genetic modified (GM) soybean seeds, which is able to reduce output loss by 10 to 20 percent, has acquired a GM crop safety certificate from China’s Ministry of Agriculture. 

The DBN 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 received 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.

He said Chinese seeds can provide the basic foundation for guaranteeing China’s food security.

Soybean crop – the United States, Brazil, and Argentina together produce about 80% of the world’s soy. China imports the most soy.
(Photo: WWF)

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

In December 2021, China approved three varieties of white broiler chicken, a large variety that grows faster, ending a four-decade-long 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 seed imports in 2018, data from the China National Seed Trade Association showed. 

Technology breakthrough

Industry observers said that the gap between China and Western countries is partly due to a lag in the set-up of complete genetic resources and gene-editing technology, but China has, in recent times, spared no efforts in catching up with its foreign peers in this area.

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 genetic locus is 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 analyses into the diversity and variability of such 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. This 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.

Sources:

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