Genetic engineering in China leads to corn yield breakthrough

China once had difficulty feeding itself. Tens of millions of Chinese died in famines in the early and mid-20th Century. But today, most Chinese are well-fed. China’s agricultural production is increasing, even as its population has stopped growing. On the other hand, China’s increasing consumption of meat over the last half century fueled growing imports. More of China’s land is now devoted to raising animals, or growing animal feed, rather than raising crops eaten by humans.

But now, Chinese companies are genetically engineering crops that produce more food per acre than traditional crops:

Amid the Chinese government’s push to increase self-sufficiency in grains and oilseeds, one of the country’s leading agricultural technology companies announced on March 20 “a major breakthrough in corn production technology.”

Origin Agritech Ltd. said it has utilized “precise gene-editing techniques” to develop a high-yield corn inbred line that significantly surpasses the productivity of traditional corn.

The Beijing-based company said that during two years of rigorous multilocational field trials, the new gene-edited corn inbred line demonstrated a yield increase of over 50% compared to the original line.

“The significant increase in yield potential heralds a new era in corn production, offering a sustainable solution to meet the growing global demand for food,” said Dr. Gengchen Han, chairman and chief executive officer of Origin Agritech. “We believe that our gene-edited high-yield corn will play a crucial role in enhancing food security and sustainability worldwide.”

The company said it plans to fully integrate this trait into its elite commercial corn line by the end of 2024, and that the integration is expected to greatly enhance seed yield and significantly reduce the cost of hybrid seed production. In addition, Origin will conduct field demonstrations and seed production trials in the summer of 2024 to showcase the technology’s performance and its potential impact on the agriculture industry.

China is forecast to set a record for corn production in the 2023-24 marketing year, reaching 288 million tonnes, according to the Foreign Agricultural Service of the US Department of Agriculture. However, to meet consumption needs, it is projected to import 23 million tonnes of corn, which would be China’s second highest total ever.

In other countries, genetically-modified crops have faced obstacles such as lawsuits by green groups against them, reducing agricultural production. Kenya’s government wanted its farmers to grow pest-resistant, drought-tolerant corn, as pests devoured much of its corn crop, and Kenya faced its worst drought in over 40 years. For five years, drought had decimated Kenya’s corn crop. For eight years, fall armyworm moths had ravaged Kenya’s corn crop, destroying a third of Kenya’s annual production.

So Kenya’s cabinet imported 11 tons of corn seeds genetically modified to be pest-resistant and drought-resistant last year. But four lawsuits were brought over the seeds by an environmentalist group and others, resulting in legal blocks against their distribution. Kenya’s GMO regulator was barred from releasing the seeds, pending a future court hearing. So farmers couldn’t plant the seeds, keeping them from producing enough food to feed Kenya’s people. Late last year, Kenya’s Supreme Court threw out the legal challenge, but many farmers are spooked by false claims about the crops.

Genetically-modified crops help the environment, by reducing the consumption of land, water, pesticides, and fertilizer, and increasing crop yields. As Ars Technica notes,

Improving crop yields helps feed more people, but it’s also good for the environment. The more food that can be grown on each square kilometer of land, the less land that needs to be converted to agriculture. As you can see in this chart from Our World in Data, South Asia produces a lot more cereal crops today than it did in 1980—and all of this growth came from increased crop yields. It’s not using any more land to grow those crops than it was 40 years ago. In sub-Saharan Africa it’s the opposite story. The area is also producing more cereals than in 1980, but almost all of this growth has come from converting more land into farmland. Low crop yields mean that feeding more people comes at the expense of natural habitats.

GM crops might be one way to increase yields. In South Africa, GM maize fields produce 11.1 percent more per hectare on average than non-GM fields—extra maize that would have taken more than 2,000 square kilometers of extra farmland to produce using conventional seeds.

Kenya already plants genetically-modified cotton, which has improved its environment and its economy. As Kenyan farmer Magondo notes, his cotton crop uses “much less pesticide,” and results in a bigger harvest, than was the case before he began planting genetically-modified cotton in 2019. Using less pesticide is great for the environment, since pesticides can contaminate soil or water, or kill birds or beneficial insects.

Yet some green activists oppose the genetic engineering that creates such environmentally-friendly crops. Green activists opposed genetically-modified rice that uses less fertilizer than traditional rice, while yielding more food. Similarly, they opposed genetically-modified “golden rice,” notes Wesley Smith of the Discovery Institute. Golden rice “has the great potential to prevent blindness in children who live in developing countries caused by Vitamin A deficiency.” Scientists engineered these rice plants to produce beta-carotene. But distribution of them “was thwarted for many years, even though growth and distribution will be via a non-profit.”

In 2003, green activists in the Philippines destroyed a field trial of Golden Rice being conducted by researchers. As food safety expert Gregory Conko noted, “Golden Rice is a humanitarian project—the grains engineered to produce beta carotene to provide a needed Vitamin supplement for poor rice-growing farmers in less developed countries. Activists even tried to convince Filipino farmers that walking through a field of genetically engineered corn could turn farmers gay.”

They did this “despite the considered opinion of dozens of scientific bodies from all around the world” that “genetically engineered crops now on the market are safe for consumers and the environment,” a conclusion reached by “the U.S. National Academies of Science, American Association for the Advancement of Science, the U.K.’s Royal Society, and the French Academy of Science.”

Left-wing activists have vandalized other projects to genetically improve crops. For example, Smith notes, “experimental wheat field intended to develop a plant that is resistant to fungal infection was trampled asunder by activists who apparently prefer human starvation to a benign modification of wheat so that it will be more resilient.”

Bureaucratic agencies delay for years the distribution of genetically-enhanced crops and foods. It took 20 years for genetically-enhanced salmon to be approved by the FDA.

Left-wing opposition to agricultural advances has not been not limited to genetic engineering. Some left-wing Luddites also denounced crossbreeding and selective breeding that improved crop yields, such as wheat that put most of its energy into edible kernels rather than long, inedible stems.

The agronomist Norman Borlaug, who pioneered the Green Revolution, saved perhaps a billion lives in the Third World by developing high-yield, disease-resistant crops through biotechnology. For this, he received the Nobel Peace Prize, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and the Congressional Medal of Honor. Yet he was smeared in the left-wing magazine The Nation, which had an irrational phobia of biotechnology, as being “the biggest killer of all.”

Green activists also want to ban nitrogen fertilizer, which is essential to feeding the world’s people. When nitrogen fertilizer is banned, farms can produce only a fraction of what they once produced. When Sri Lanka followed green activists’ advice to get rid of nitrogen fertilizers, its economy and farm sector collapsed last year, leaving millions of people hungry and broke, and fields lying empty.

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By GIL