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A second postcard from China: China boosts biotech - but under strict controls

Coloured cotton, a giant carp, Bt-resistant poplars - is anything holding Chinese biotechnology back? Yes, says Zhao Zhizen - a government that won't take any risks.

By | June 26, 2000

Chinese biotechnology is growing fast, and not just to boost food production.

Transgenic brown, yellow, red, green and deep green cotton has been created, and transgenic varieties of rape, ginseng, pseudo-ginseng, edible seaweed and tobacco are also being introduced. And the Bt gene has been introduced into trees –North China poplars – which are now being field tested in Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia.

The Bt gene has also been inserted into seven planted cotton varieties, and commercial production is now under way in 5 million mu (1 mu = 0.0667 hectare) of cotton fields – about 8 percent of production.

Back in 1985 Professor Zhu Zuoyan, a member of the Chinese Academy of Science, createded the world's first transgenic fish – a carp with a growth hormone gene. China expects this to become the world's first commercialized transgenic animal. And transgenic sheep producing human blood factor IX in their milk have been bred in Shanghai, the first time that China has worked with a transgenic animal of pharmaceutical value. Work on transgenic hogs for medical use is also making progress.

Of the food crops, in China rice is king – accounting for 200 billion kg a year, around 40% of China's total food production. One major pest, the snout moth larva, has been tackled by inserting the Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) gene, and a dual transgenic rice, both snout moth larva resistant and herbicide resistant, is in pilot production. Transgenic wheat resistant to powdery mildew and scab is already in use, and yellow dwarf disease has been tackled by inserting the gene for the coat protein of barley yellow dwarf virus – using the pollen tube, a world first. Antiwithering transgenic potato and antivirus tomato and pimento have been produced; the protein content and balance of amino acids in potato and the structure of potato starch has been improved; and a slow-ripening transgenic tomato has been created, by transferring anti-sense RNA to block ethylene synthase production, reducing production of ethylene.

But the work has faced strict controls. In 1993, the State Scientific and Technological Commission of China promulgated Procedures for the Management of the Safety of Genetic Engineering. In 1996, the Ministry of Agriculture issued Procedures for the Implementation of the Management of the Safety of Agribiogenetic Engineering, stipulating that GMO products should pass through four steps, the laboratory, intermediate experiments, examination and approval, and commercialized production. In addition, vetting groups were set up, formed by experienced specialists and scholars.

The attitude of the Chinese government so far has been cautious. Only six varieties of transgenic plants have been approved for commercial production: two varieties of bollworm–resistant cotton, one long-storage tomato, one CMV-resistant tomato, one pimento, and one colour-transformed petunia. But government caution hasn't quelled all public fears - as I'll explain in my next postcard.

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