A visit to Beijing sheds light on the science, policy and public mood around genetic technologies in agriculture, revealing some interesting comparisons between the UK and China.

Papaya plantation near Fushan town, Hainan

A visit to Beijing sheds light on the science, policy and public mood around genetic technologies in agriculture, revealing some interesting comparisons between the UK and China.

China is at the forefront of research using techniques like genome sequencing, genetic modification (GM) and genome editing. Much of this work is going on in crops, looking at the ways they might be adapted and improved for different purposes.

But despite such a rich research vein, China only actually grows two GM crops at scale – insect-resistant (‘Bt’) cotton and virus-resistant papaya – though it imports large quantities of GM soybeans to feed cattle. The reasons for such limited commercialisation boil down to strict regulation and public concern.

These were the issues on the table during my recent visit to Beijing with colleague Rapela Zaman and scientists Robin Lovell-Badge, Dale Sanders and Austin Burt. Through conversations with research institutes and government ministries, we began to build a picture of the science, policy and public mood around genetic technologies in Chinese agriculture.

Here’s what you need to know.

1) There’s a huge amount of science going on

Our visit majored on plants. We heard about research to answer fundamental questions – like how do hormones affect plant development, or how do variations in the sequence of a plant’s genome lead to variations in its characteristics? The volume of genome sequencing and interpretation alone is staggering, with places like the new BIG Data Center at the Beijing Institute of Genomics being established to crunch all the data.

We also heard about more applied research, often going on under the same roof. This includes the development of new crop varieties – like those that require less water, or can cope with salty conditions, or are ‘biofortified’ so they contain higher levels of vitamins and minerals.

It also includes cutting edge research using base editing (a new technique receiving lots of attention) to increase nitrogen use efficiency in rice. The idea is that the rice will grow better without the need for fertilisers, which are both costly to farmers and can find their way into water courses with damaging effect.

We also touched on animals. Everything from modifying pigs to increase their muscle quality or make them resistant to porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome (PRRS); to making chickens resistant to flu; to developing fast-growing carp (not unlike the GM salmon that recently went on sale in Canada).

2) The Chinese public are concerned

Public concern about the safety of GM food is widespread in China, with particular opposition to the modification of staple crops, such as rice.

Anecdotally, we heard a mixture of reasons for this concern. These ranged from the influence of ancient Chinese philosophies (only act when you’re confident about the long term consequences, or only act in line with the ‘natural rule’), to the assumption that Bt crops, which are toxic to insects, must be toxic to people too.

Concerns appear to be reinforced by high profile anti-GM celebrities, and by a lack of scientists willing to publicly defend the safety of the technologies they use. Many people also point to the fact that crop yields in China have been steadily increasing without GM (thanks to significant investment in agricultural improvement) and that China has far fewer starving people than in recent history.

Public concern has also played its part in the UK’s history of GM.

Recognising its importance, and in order to contribute to the wider debates that are necessary, the Society has commissioned a public dialogue in the UK. We’re exploring the range of views that people hold about which potential applications for genetic technologies should be developed, why and under what conditions. Our findings will be out early next year.

3) There’s uncertainty about how to regulate new techniques

China is yet to decide how to classify, and therefore regulate, new plant breeding techniques (like those that use genome editing).

Some argue that these techniques are sufficiently similar to those covered by existing genetically modified organisms (GMO) legislation. Others say that they should be completely or partially exempt, pointing to the fact that organisms produced in this way could have been produced through conventional breeding.

The EU is in a similar quandary, pending a decision by the European Court of Justice.  Even so, countries like Sweden have independently reached the opinion that genome edited plants should fall outside the scope of GMO legislation – with one Swedish scientist famously tucking into a genome edited meal to prove the point! The UK also provides an interesting case study, given the possibility of new national regulatory frameworks in the context of a renegotiated relationship with the EU.

Interestingly, even though the US doesn’t treat genome edited plants as GMOs (focusing regulation more on the end product than on the technique used to produce it), we heard that UK and EU positions, rather than the US position, are likely to carry greater weight among Chinese officials.

In the meantime, scientists and others have begun suggesting the sorts of regulatory frameworks that could best govern these new techniques. This framework suggested by US, European and Chinese researchers, including Li Jiayang (our main collaborator at the Chinese Academy of Sciences), is one example, and perhaps a sign of things to come.

My visit to Beijing forms part of an ongoing collaboration with the Chinese Academy of Sciences to explore scientific issues of pressing policy concern. The intelligence gathered in Beijing will contribute to a two-day UK-China policy dialogue on genetic technologies in spring 2018.

For more information about our genetic technologies programme, please contact me or jonny.hazell@royalsociety.org.


  • Emma Woods

    Emma Woods