Market Reports

The Splice Must Grow: The Bright and Shady Sides of GM Agriculture in China

Market Intelligence on China’s Agriculture & Food Industry


As of early 2016, China has only approved the commercialization of a handful of genetically modified (GM) plants. These include GM poplar trees, petunias, cotton, papayas, tomatoes, and sweet peppers. As a rule, approvals for commercialization are only granted on a provincial/regional basis (i.e. not country-wide) and only after a long screening process. In 2009, two varieties of GM rice and one variety of GM corn (all developed in China) received “GM organism safety certification” as a possible precursor to commercialization. In mid-2014, this certification was allowed to expire amid poor public support for GM crops. However, the certification for both rice varieties were reinstated in January 2015.


China’s GMO Application & Commercialization Process

China GMO Approval and Commercialization

GM Cotton

    • Varieties: GK12, SGK321
    • GM Trait: Insect resistance
    • Regions: Anhui, Beijing, Hebei, Henan, Hubei, Hunan, Jiangsu, Jiangxi, Liaoning, Shaanxi, Shandong, Shanxi, Sichuan, Tianjin, Xinjiang, and Zhejiang
    • Area: ~3.9 million hectares as of 2014
    • Year: Cultivation began in 1997 for GK12 and 1999 for SGK321
    • Developer: Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences

GM Papaya Fruit

    • Variety: Huanong No. 1
    • GM Trait: Papaya ringspot virus (PRSV) resistance
    • Regions: Guangdong, Hainan Island, and Guangxi
    • Area: ~8,475 ha as of 2014
    • Year: Cultivation began in 2006
    • Developer: South China Agricultural University

GM Petunia Flowers

    • Variety: Petunia-CHS (Chalcone synthase)
    • GM Traits: Modified flower color (white pigmentation). Chalcones are known to have anti-bacterial, anti-fungal, anti-tumor and anti-inflammatory properties. In addition, petunias share the same taxonomic family (e.g. Solanaceae) as the commercially important crops of tobacco, potatoes, tomatoes, eggplants, and sweet peppers.
    • Regions: Unknown (possibly Beijing, Fujian, and Yunnan)
    • Area: Unknown
    • Year: Cultivation began in 1998
    • Developer: Beijing University (see also Xiamen Bioway Biotech Co., Ltd.)

GM Poplar Trees

    • Varieties: Poplar-12 (aka Bt poplar, Populus nigra), Poplar-741 (Hybrid poplar clone)
    • GM Traits: Insect Resistance/Antibiotic Resistance (reduction in leaf damage)
    • Regions: Northern China, Xinjiang
    • Area: ~500 to 800 hectares (300-500 ha commercially, 300 ha for research purposes across 11 provinces/regions/municipalities). China leads the world with 7.2 million ha of poplar trees (as of 2012).
    • Year: Cultivation began in 1998 for Poplar 12 and 2001 for Poplar 741
    • Developer: Chinese Academy of Forestry (CAF)

GM Sweet Peppers

    • Variety: Sweet pepper PK-SP01
    • GM Traits: Cucumber mosaic virus (CMV) resistance
    • Regions: Beijing, Fujian, and Yunnan
    • Area: Unknown
    • Year: Cultivation began in 1998
    • Developer: Beijing University

GM Tomatoes

    • Variety: Tomato PK-TM8805R
    • GM Trait: Cucumber mosaic virus (CMV) resistance. In 1990, tomato crops in Fujian were affected by a severe strain (acute necrosis) of CMV
    • Regions: Beijing, Fujian, and Yunnan
    • Area: Unknown
    • Year: Cultivation began in 1999
    • Developer: Beijing University
      *Huafan No 1 (Huazhong Agricultural University, 1997) & Da Dong No 9 (China Academy of Sciences – Institute of Microbiology, 1999) are no longer cultivated

GM Corn (not commercialized)

    • Variety: BVLA430101
    • GM Trait: Phytase production (animal feed supplement)
    • Region: Shandong Province
    • Area: Unknown
    • Year: Cultivation began in 2009, certificate expired in 2014 (no commercialization) but reissued in January 2015
    • Developer: Origin Agritech (Beijing)

GM Rice (not commercialized)

    • VarietiesHuahui-1/TT51-1Shanyou 63
    • GM Trait: Insect resistance
    • Region: Hubei Province, with reports of illicit Shanyou 63 production occurring in Hunan, Jiangxi, Fujian, Zhejiang, and Anhui
    • Area: Unknown
    • Year: Cultivation began in 2009, certificate expired in mid-2014 (no commercialization, both varieties) but reissued in January 2015
    • Developer: Huazhong Agricultural University

Overview of Hybrid Rice & GM Crop Development in China

1011: Emperor Zhenzong of the Song Dynasty orders 30,000 bushels of quick-maturing drought-resistant rice (aka zhancheng, champa) seed from Fujian Province to be planted in the lower Yangtze basin. This rice variety, originally from southern Vietnam (Cham Kingdom, Mekong Delta River region), helped spur China’s population growth and its north to south population shift.

1930: Yuan Longping, “The Father of Hybrid Rice”, is born in Beijing.

1964: China begins researching rice male sterility.

1970: A member of Yuan Longping’s research team identifies a wild rice plant growing in Hainan Island with abortive pollen. The rice plant, known as wild abortive (WA) male sterile rice, would prove critical in the creation of one of the parental lines of the three-line hybrid rice system.

Why was this discovery of the WA male sterile rice so  important?

  • Unlike corn which can cross-pollinate, rice self-pollinates (i.e. inbred and genetically fixed), with its florets containing both male and female organs. The biological quality of rice does not change from one generation to the next since heterosis or hybrid vigor (combining superior traits from separate male and female parents) does not occur. In order to combine superior biological traits on a consistent basis, a male sterile line is needed in order to prevent the rice from self-pollinating.

1972: China develops maintainer lines to act as a pollinator within the three-line system. Maintainer lines ensure male sterility from the WA plant is passed on.

1973: Researchers across China develop restorer lines, which restores fertility and produces hybrid rice seed that can be planted. As a result of the efforts of Yuan Longping and other researchers, China  develops the world’s first commercially viable hybrid rice plant (15-20% yield increase).

1975: Chinese research scientists descend on Hainan Island to cultivate hybrid rice seed on approximately 4,000 hectares of land at cost of CNY 8 million.

1976: China’s Ministry of Agriculture approves the large-scale commercial production of three-line hybrid rice.

1981: Shanyou 63 (GM rice) was first developed by Fujian Provincial Institute of Agricultural Science.

1987: Yuan Longping lays out plan to develop a two-line system hybrid rice using environment-conditioned genic male sterility (EGMS). With EGMS, male sterility of the rice plant that is controlled by photoperiodism (i.e. the amount of day light or night that a plant is exposed to) and/or temperature, eliminating the need for a maintainer line.

1989: Approximately 100,000 ha of poplar hybrid plantations in China suffer from significant defoliation due to the poplar lopper (Apochemia cinerarius) and gypsy moth (Lymantria dispar). At the same time, China creates its first GM poplar by introducing the Bt insect resistance gene into Populus nigra.

1993: China approved GM tobacco and by 1995 it had grown 2.5 million hectares of the cash crop, but its approval was withdrawn in 1997.

1994-1995: China develops and commercializes two-line hybrid rice (no maintainer line needed), a 5-10% yield improvement over the three-line system. This line uses photoperiod-sensitive genetic male sterility (PGMS) or thermo-sensitive genetic male sterility (TGMS) to produce hybrid rice.

1996: China institutes a three phase “super hybrid” rice program

  • Phase 1 – 1996 to 2000: Target yields of 9.75 MTs (early/late season) and 10.5 MTs (single season) per ha
  • Phase 2 – 2000 to 2005: Target yields of 11.25 MTs and 12 MTs per ha
  • Phase 3 – 2005-2010: Target yield of 13.5 MTs (single season only) per ha

1997: The Beijing-based agricultural biotechnology company Origin Agritech is founded. China begins the cultivation of GM cotton and GM tomato. China also begins to import GM soybeans from the US though not officially approved until 2004.

1998: China begins the cultivation of GM sweet pepper, GM poplars, and GM petunias.

1999: China introduces new GM varieties of tomato and cotton.

2004-2005: Shanyou 63 rice is illegally planted and sold in China (i.e. outside the approved area of Hubei Province).

2006: China begins the cultivation of GM papaya. Europe detects GM Shanyou 63 in rice shipments from China.

2008: In April, Europe bans GM Shanyou 63 imports (to be reviewed after 6 months).

2009: In August, the GM rice varieties of Shanyou 63 and Huahui-1/TT51-1, as well as one GM corn variety BVLA430101 receive safety certificates from the Ministry of Agriculture.

2010: Cotton Bt study finds 12-fold increase in mirid bugs in six major cotton-growing regions since 1997.

2011: Chinese policy decision not to commercialize GM rice (e.g Shanyou 63).

2014:  In August, the safety certificates expire for the two GM rice varieties and one GM corn variety (see 2009).

2015: In January, China reissued safety certificates for both GM rice varieties.

2020: The Chinese government will have spent US$3-4 billion on GMO research.