Since 2006, China has focused on a number of projects to maximize its further industrialization and economic dominance in the world sphere, with the county branching out into several new fields. This has been showcased by the 16 National S&P Major Projects that were set up by the Chinese State government to progress research and development in a variety of domains. These projects range from building more advanced computers and internet networks to drug innovation, energy production, and even space travel.

But for everyone involved in the field of biotechnology, the most interesting of all those projects has been number 9, “Breeding of new varieties for transgenic biology”.[1] And for anyone that has been paying attention for the past decade, China has become an ever more looming figure in the field as time goes on. They began to show this initially not just from research being published, but from another action entirely.

China and agricultural imports

In 2014, China banned all importation of corn produced in the United States. Their claimed reason was the discovery of a variety of GM corn being sold that they hadn’t approved for importation.[2] Though, for anyone with any knowledge of trade systems and the heavy relationship of crop exportation from the US to China, this reaction seemed hugely disproportionate. It would have been one thing if the Chinese government had employed several tariffs against US imports as punishment, but to ban all corn imports entirely? It didn’t add up.

But this sort of action wasn’t anything new. Arguably, ever since China joined the World Trade Organization in 2001 and began butting heads with the United States more directly over trades, agriculture has become even more of a central tipping point for China’s leaders, as it is the main area where China has to import its needs. And from its rival in commerce at that. So, one could clearly see even from that point on that a plan had been devised. A plan that began to unfold more rapidly as the new decade dawned, ultimately leading to where we are now and China’s almost universal ban of US crop imports, especially GM products. (The only real exception being soybeans, due to the soya bean making up one of the primary consumed products in the country.)[3]

While some anti-biotechnology groups and organizations have claimed that this import ban is an example of China finally coming around to recognizing their claimed dangers of biotech products, it appears that, sadly for them, the evidence just doesn’t pan out that way. The facts actually show quite the opposite. For the past decade and a half, China has been working toward becoming the dominant nation in the field of biotechnology, or at least a leading competitor, and dividends on that plan have started to come to fruition recently.

With the benefit of retrospection, 2014 turns out to have been the perfect time for China to start making their move. Their research projects had finally begun to show gains in other ways as well, especially their energy production field, and the biotech side was no different. Let’s take a journey through several of the publications that Chinese scientists have produced over the past two years, all of which have been funded directly by the Chinese government and the National Transgenic Project.

The role of phosphate

Starting with the earliest and right before the thick of China’s actions in 2014 occurred, a study dropped in January titled “GmPHR1, a Novel Homolog of the AtPHR1 Transcription Factor, Plays a Role in Plant Tolerance to Phosphate Starvation”.[4] It was a relatively simple study that, by itself, would just indicate further advancement in potential development of crops that require less chemical inputs. It isolated a gene from soybeans named GmPHR1 (“Glycine max”) that helps to provide tolerance to phosphate starvation. If it is possible to not only transfer this gene to crops that lack such a tolerance, but also enhance its effects in soybeans alone, the amount of chemical fertilizers needed in seasonal crop production would be dramatically reduced.

Phosphates, for those unaware, are inorganic chemical salts of phosphoric acid, all with the element phosphorus as the center of the molecular structure. Phosphorus itself is an “essential macronutrient for plant growth”, which is taken up as phosphate ions through the plant’s roots.[5] However, a lot of soil throughout the world is phosphorus deficient and for crops to grow and thrive there, they have to be supplied a chemical fertilizer rich in the element they need. This is especially true with China’s soil, with only “10 milligrams of phosphate available to plants per kilogram of soil”. Due to China’s ever-growing population, increased crop production also involves increased usage of phosphate fertilizers to keep the crops growing. In 2009, the fertilizer consumption accounted for more than 35% of the worldwide usage and it has only been growing worse since. This, in turn, has led to multiple cases of phosphate pollution and runoff into water systems and waterways. The more available phosphorus causes the growth of algal blooms on the surface of the water that rapidly eats through the oxygen content within the water itself, killing all living things in the rivers.[6] As one can imagine, this doesn’t bode well for China as a whole.

Put into perspective, the ability to grow crops that are tolerant to only low amounts of phosphorus being available and still being able to thrive would be a saving grace for the country. Despite this, reliance on other countries to develop such crops and then being required to forever import them is not an option China is willing to abide with. But if Chinese scientists can manage to produce such crops on their own, not only would this fix their own problems, but it would also make all the other countries in the world with phosphorus deficient soils dependent on Chinese products.

Salt and desertification

China has had a huge problem in their northwestern regions that you may have heard talk of. Its name is the Gobi desert and it seeks to swallow all of China’s fertile soil whole. Desertification has been one of the prime economic problems China has had to face for decades, with progress in slowing the desert’s spread only happening recently. Though the effect of the expanding desert goes far beyond just the land it takes up itself, but also the destruction of the soil for the surrounding tens of millions of square hectares of potential cropland. This is soil salinization.

High salt levels in soils isn’t that uncommon throughout the world, with about 10% having a higher amount of salt on average. Evidence shows, however, that too high of a salt content, especially in arid or semi-arid environments, can help prep the soil for eventual desertification. It is helpful then that one of the main methods to combat such a result is to just grow plants. Some of the salt is taken up by the roots of a growing plant and dispersed, lowering the overall amount of salt trapped in the soil. In spite of this solution, if the salt content is too high it interferes with the ability of plants that are not salt-tolerant to grow at all. The situation is made worse by the widespread use of water irrigation throughout the world, especially in such arid environments with low rainfall, as any outside water will contain at least a small amount of salt particulates that is added to the soil and will increase the overall salinity over time.[7] Then, desertification begins.

The soil of China, most notably in the northwest provinces bordering Mongolia and further west, meets all the negative requirements for this effect: a highly arid environment, soils that have a high general salinity, and bordering deserts from which desertification can spread. It is because of this that it is estimated that more than 100 million square hectares of land in this northwestern region are undergoing land degradation due to soil salinization.[8] Thus, as one might expect, the ability to grow salt-tolerant crops is high on the list of China’s desired scientific advancements.

Research into this targets two opposing pathways, the ability for certain genes to promote plant salt tolerance and better growth and the ability for other genes to act as negative regulators that increase salt-intolerance in plant growth. A paper published on April 19, 2016 and funded by the Transgenic Project was titled “Two Groups of Thellungiella salsuginea RAVs Exhibit Distinct Responses and Sensitivity to Salt and ABA in Transgenic Arabidopsis” and it focused on the latter type of genes. Or, more specifically, the RAV transcription factors and the effect of Abscisic acid (ABA) on expression of the RAV genes. The model plant Arabidopsis was used to compare the workings of different RAV genes.[9]

Overall, the study was able to pinpoint the specific RAV genes that were more responsible as negative regulators on the ability for plants to properly respond to both high salt and drought conditions. Due to the fact that these genes are heavily involved in plant growth in general, it may be difficult to control expression properly to mitigate their negative effects, but better understanding of how they work throughout the lifespan of a plant may allow other options to become available.

Though this single study alone likely will not result in the production of new salt-tolerant transgenic crops, it does bring Chinese scientists one step closer to doing so and there are plenty of other research projects being funded to find out more.

China’s biotech future

While the future is unknown, it would be a poor decision to bet against the idea that China’s financial investment into the field of biotechnology and transgenic research projects will slow down anytime soon. The focus is not only of national importance due to ecological dangers to China, but also pure economic benefit if the ultimate goal of China’s agricultural independence is ever to be achieved. Research into the development of a transgenic sugarcane with resistance to the sugarcane borer[10] is one example of China’s planned exclusion from the worldwide market for sugar, as 80% of its sugar needs come from direct Chinese production of sugarcane,[11] and visualizes its goal for a renewed self-sufficiency. It can also be assured that Chinese researchers will keep on top of new technologies and utilize them to the fullest extent possible, including currently expanding CRISPR/Cas9 techniques.[12]

The approaching dawn of China’s major biotech stampede into the world stage is rapidly oncoming and all other developed nations had better keep up or get out of the way.


  1. Chinese Ministry of Science and Technology (MoST). 2012 Jan. MoST 4 – National S&T Major Projects. ACCESS4.EU; [accessed 2016 Apr 27].
  2. Harris D. 2014 Aug 9. Hit Us Where It Hurts: China’s Ban on U.S. Agricultural Products Grows.China Law Blog; [accessed 2016 Apr 27].
  3. World Grain Staff. 2015 Mar 13. China soybean imports to continue to grow.World Grain. [accessed 2016 Apr 27].
  4. Li X, Wang Y, Wu B, Kong Y, Li W, Chang W, Zhang C. 2014. GmPHR1, a Novel Homolog of the AtPHR1 Transcription Factor, Plays a Role in Plant Tolerance to Phosphate Starvation.Journal of Integrative Agriculture [accessed 2016 Apr 27]; 13:2584–2593.
  5. Vasil IK ed. 2013. Plant Molecular Responses to Phosphate-Starvation. In: Plant Biotechnology 2002 and Beyond: Proceedings of the 10th IAPTC&B Congress June 23–28, 2002 Orlando, Florida, U.S.A. Springer Science & Business Media. [accessed April 27, 2016].
  6. Qiu J. 2010 Sep 29. Phosphate fertilizer warning for China.Nature. [accessed 2016 Apr 27].
  7. Sentis IP. 2005 Sep 12. Soil Salinization and Land Desertification. The Abdus Salam International Centre for Theoretical Physics; [accessed 2016 Apr 27].
  8. Li B. 2010. Soil Salinization. In: Desertification and Its Control in China. Springer Berlin Heidelberg. [accessed April 27, 2016].
  9. Yang S, Luo C, Song Y, Wang J. 2016. Two Groups of Thellungiella salsuginea RAVs Exhibit Distinct Responses and Sensitivity to Salt and ABA in Transgenic Arabidopsis.Plos One [accessed 2016 Apr 27];
  10. Gao S, Yang Y, Wang C, Guo J, Zhou D, Wu Q, Su Y, Xu L. 2016. Transgenic Sugarcane with a cry1Ac Gene Exhibited Better Phenotypic Traits and Enhanced Resistance against Sugarcane Borer.Plos One [accessed 2016 Apr 27];
  11. Economic and Social Development Department. 1997. Proceedings of the Fiji/FAO 1997 Asia Pacific Sugar Conference – China. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations; [accessed 2016 Apr 27].
  12. Lowder LG, Zhang D, Baltes NJ, Paul JW, Tang X, Zheng X, Voytas DF, Hsieh T-F, Zhang Y, Qi Y. 2015. A CRISPR/Cas9 toolbox for multiplexed plant genome editing and transcriptional regulation.Plant Physiology [accessed 2016 Apr 27]; 169:972–985.

Written by: Sterling Ericsson
Word Count: 1,771
Type: Longform

Photo CC: Rice by oarranzli

About Sterling Ericsson