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China, the world's largest food consumer, led developing countries in growing biotech crops last year, according to a report by an industry organization.
The country was the world's sixth-largest grower of biotech crops in 2012, the same as a year ago, the report by the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications, or ISAAA, said.
The nation's total growing area for biotech crops stood at 4 million hectares, with cotton the dominant crop, the report, released on Friday, said.
More than 7.2 million resource-poor Chinese farmers on small holdings grow less than 4 million hectares of biotech cotton, ISAAA data showed. This means a biotechnology adaptation rate as high as 80 percent, with every farmer cultivating half a hectare on average.
Globally, an unprecedented 100-fold increase was recorded in the biotech crop growing area, which surged from 1.7 million hectares in 1996 to 170 million hectares in 2012.
"This makes biotech crops the fastest-adopted crop technology in recent history," said Clive James, ISAAA chairman and founder.
Last year also saw developing countries growing more biotech crops than rich nations, for the first time since the introduction of biotech crops two decades ago, according to the ISAAA.
"This growth is contrary to the prediction of critics, who in 1996 prematurely declared that biotech crops were only for industrial countries," James said.
China ranked fourth among developing countries in terms of biotech crop growing area, following Argentina, Brazil and India. "China has great potential in planting biotech crops, especially with corn," James said.
The Chinese government has given consistent support to biotechnology research in recent years. In 2008, it launched the National Transgenic New Variety Development Program, with plans to invest 26 billion yuan ($3.8 billion) in biotechnology research by 2020.
A year later, the Ministry of Agriculture issued safety certificates for production of two genetically modified field crops, rice and maize. Since then, however, the commercialization of biotech crops has made little progress.
Huang Dafang, a professor from the Biotechnology Research Institute at the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences, said: "This variety is ready for commercial farming, but without government approval it cannot be launched into the market." Huang said the crop enjoys several advantages. It can improve farmers' income while reducing their labor and chemical input such as fertilizers. Most importantly, it can help China reduce its reliance on imported corn.
Last year, China's corn imports jumped two-fold from a year earlier to 5.2 million metric tons, industry data showed. The imported corn came mainly from the United States.
Industry analysts attributed slow progress on promoting the commercialization of biotech crops to public concerns about food safety. But they agreed that developing such crops is a step in the right direction to advance the agricultural industry.
"The government should continue to support research in biotechnology. It represents the future in agriculture," said Ma Wenfeng, a senior analyst at Beijing Orient Agribusiness Consultant. "Industrial use of biotech crops should be allowed, but China should be cautious in introducing them to people's daily diet."
(China Daily 03/02/2013 page10)