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[BEIJING] The Chinese government is coming under pressure to boost its efforts to allow the commercial use of food crops that have been genetically modified to withstand insects, diseases and herbicides.

The main source of the pressure is a group of senior Chinese biotech scientists who have recently released a report urging the government to allow such planting to take place as soon as possible.

Chinese researchers have developed several GM rice varieties, with field trials showing boosted yields and less chemical use. The scientists say that if GM rice was widely used by farmers, it would have an even greater impact than GM cotton.

GM cotton has become the 'miracle crop' of China since its commercial growth was first permitted in 1996, and more than a half of China's cotton is now GM. One of the main reasons for this success, say its advocates, it that it has both helped farmers to cut their production costs by an average of almost 30 per cent, and reduce their exposure to chemicals.

Huang Jikun, an agricultural economist with the Agricultural Policy Research Centre, part of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, and one of the group urging that GM efforts should be stepped up, says that the Chinese government should invest US$100 million a year from 2005 to support the commercial use of GM food, and carry out research into such use.

But the ministry of agriculture says the funding has not been finalised.

China awarded its first formal safety certificates for imported GM crops – which allow foreign exporters to ship their GM products to China – last week. Huang says that this shows that the country's decision makers are becoming more receptive to GM technologies.

Five strains developed by the US-based biotech giant Monsanto, including Roundup Ready soybeans and corn, YieldGard Corn Borer, Bollgard cotton and Roundup Ready cotton, received certificates.

Strict measures adopted in recent years to tighten control over imports of GM soybean have failed to stop the growth rate of GM imports. Last year, China imported more than 20 million tons of soybean worth US$4.8 billion, a rise of 100 per cent over the previous year. More than 70 per cent of China's imported soybeans are genetically modified.

The Chinese government is, however, increasing its efforts to develop the country's own GM rice varieties, says Huang Danian, a scientist with the Hangzhou-based China National Rice Research Institute.

His institute has launched several projects to test how well GM rice withstands diseases and herbicides, while another institute in China's Fujian Province is expanding the range of trial areas of insect-resistant GM rice.

China's best strategy would be to develop its own low-cost GM technologies, especially rice, Huang Jikun says.

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