Seed Technology Engrained in China’s Food Security Policy

The uncertainty and instability of the external situation have increased significantly; we must not take the food security issue lightly for even a moment.

Tang Renjian, Chinese minister of agricultural and rural affairs

In 1996, the Chinese government issued The Grain Issue in China, a white paper discussing self-sufficiency in food security, goals in grain production, and structural reforms. One of the key goals was to increase grain production to at least 95% of total consumption. This goal is still referenced as recently as 2019 in Food Security in China, another government white paper on the topic, which states that China achieved that goal. As China sets its new urbanization goal to 65% by 2025, food security is still at the forefront of Chinese agricultural policy.

The 2021 No.1 Central Document, a government planning document, includes a proposal for local governments and Party officials to take on political responsibility for food security. As described in the Report on the Implementation of the 2020 Plan and in the Draft of the 2021 Plan, the government is instituting a system that shifts responsibility for the storage of other foods, like meat and grain, to provincial leaders and city mayors. Despite grain remaining the central metric through which China measures food security, policy intentions going into 2025 indicate nutrition could become a broader concern for guaranteeing food security. Potentially, this means China may expand its definition of food security to include meats, such as pork, into the upcoming food security legislation.

China’s seed breeding revolution and unanswered questions

The 2021 Report on Government Work includes goals for improving seed quality, which are also detailed in the No.1 Central Document. Support for seed breeding and other seed-related R&D is emphasized, meaning we can expect increased government funding and potentially more acquisitions of agribusinesses. The inclusion of this in early documents shows their importance within the 14th FYP and in improving China’s food security.

China has linked seed breeding closely with food security, making it a core component of the nation’s strategy going forward. The most recent Central Economic Work Conference in December 2020 laid out two goals for seeds in 2021: promote innovation to increase yield and advance seed protection. The latter initiative prevents seed loss to disease and other pests before the seeds have an opportunity to sprout.

One of China’s most important areas of research in seed breeding is gene editing. In 2013, the Chinese government spent $10 billion on agricultural R&D at 1,100 research institutions, which has likely increased since and will continue to grow under recent government guidance. Another major investment was ChemChina’s $43 billion acquisition of Syngenta in 2017. Syngenta is globally one of the largest agribusinesses conducting gene-editing research, enhancing China’s seed development capabilities.

Genome editing is crucial to China’s research strategy because traditional seed breeding has an extensive research and development process that would leave China lagging behind peer nations in the field. Gene editing cuts seed breeding time to months, down from decades. The technology can lead to year-round seed development and allow researchers to alter the seeds annually as they learn which genes work best in different environments. 

The primary technologies used by Chinese researchers are TALEN and CRISPR, which alter the seeds’ DNA with beneficial genes to breed new seeds. TALEN, the older technology, allowed researchers to inject single mutations at once and has been used extensively in China’s seed-breeding programs. However, CRISPR, which came into prominence in the last decade, is capable of multiple mutations at once. While gene editing is widely used by international agribusinesses, there are still regulatory and cultural roadblocks that China must overcome as it encourages consumption of what people would consider genetically modified organisms.

China has weak regulations regarding the approval and use of genome-edited crops as a part of broader food safety and labeling requirements. These regulations are difficult for agribusinesses to navigate and obtain approval for their seeds, creating an uncertain environment for the industry. The Ministry of Agriculture has approved very few seeds, notably rice, corn, rapeseed, and cotton. While China is investing heavily, inefficient regulations make commercialization difficult, limiting the spread and usefulness of seed breeding with gene-editing techniques. This is a major hindrance to increasing yield and meeting future demand for a growing urban population.

The focus on seed development will allow China’s farmers to become more efficient. Even as the agricultural labor force declines, we can expect crop yields to increase more sharply to meet the growing food demand in China’s widening middle class and urban population. However, this will take a few years to materialize.

Cutting-edge seed technology to offset demographic changes?

China’s population migration has strongly influenced food security through a decreased rural labor force and increased food demand and waste, which has created the need to enact policy measures to mitigate these problems. Front-and-center is advancing seed technologies; however this is not the only measure China is pursuing. China has increased investments in green mechanization and in the digitalization of agriculture, which introduces more smart technology into production. 

China’s food security goals, laid out in 2021 reports and planning documents, are ambitious. By featuring food security prominently, specifically seed technology, the Chinese government is signaling a change in rural development priorities. The agricultural labor force will continue its decline in line with China’s urbanization goals, as more workers seek better economic opportunities in the cities. As wages increase and drive demand for a diet with a wide variety, the towering problems of inefficient production and weak regulations will still threaten China’s food security through 2025.

Image Source: Xinhua

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Alex Schiller

Alex is a Master of Advanced Studies in International Affairs student at UCSD’s School of Global Policy and Strategy, with a specialization in Security of the Asia-Pacific and China. He graduated from Appalachian State University with a dual BA in International Economics and Spanish. Prior to attending GPS, he served as a Surface Warfare Officer in the United States Navy. His research interests include Chinese military affairs, national security, and “One Country, Two Systems”.

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