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China to greatly expand GM crops

China intends to plant genetically modified crops on a very large scale in the coming years. The new policy follows a recent announcement that GM crop developer Syngenta will be taken over by a Chinese state-owned firm.

China's agriculture ministry announced on Wednesday that it intends to facilitate a massive increase in the scale and variety of genetically modified (GM) crops planted in the country over coming years. It's a major shift in policy, given that only two GM crops are currently legally cultivated in China: a type of cotton approved in 1996, and a virus-resistant papaya authorized in 2006.

"During the 13th five-year plan, we will ... push forward the industrialisation of major products including new types of insect-resistant cotton and maize," said Liao Xiyuan, a senior agriculture ministry official.

Maize is the most-produced grain in China, as measured by production tonnage and sown area, with rice in second place and wheat in third, according to official data. Much of the maize is used for animal feed.

The government will continue research on GM rice and wheat over the next five years, Liao said.

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South Africa suffers worst drought in decades

China to become GM superpower

China is not yet a major producer of GM crops, but it is a major consumer. GM soy, maize, cotton and rapeseed can already be imported into China as raw materials and as ingredients in processed products. Processed sugar beet imports are also permitted.

Another indication that China's government has decided to commit to a future in which GM crops could play a major role in securing the nation's food supply came in early February, when it was announced that state-owned

ChemChina was acquiring Switzerland-based Syngenta,

one of the world's leading producers of agrochemicals and seeds - including GM seeds - in a $43 billion (38.2 billion euro) all-cash deal.

GM crops remain controversial, with some environmentalists expressing concern that they could pose risks to biodiversity. Two-thirds of EU member states decided in late 2015 to

ban the growing of GM crops

on their territories.

However, they are already grown on a very large scale, with 181.5 million hectares total crop hectarage growing GM crops in 2014. For comparison, that's an area of cropland about five times the size of Germany's entire surface area.

Total GM acreage declined by 1 percent in 2015 compared to the previous year, the first-ever decline, caused by declining commodity prices and severe drought in some regions - in South Africa, the worst drought in decades caused a decline in GM maize from 3 million to 2.3 million hectares last year.

The United States has the largest amount of GM crop acreage. Five emerging economies account for about half of all GM crops in 2015: Brazil, Argentina, India, China and South Africa.

nz/cjc (AFP, Reuters)

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