China's approval process for biotech crops is beset by regulatory hurdles and delays that have cost U.S. companies billions of dollars and added to challenges for American farmers.
Industry groups and members of Congress have been urging the Trump administration to press China to make its regulatory process for approving agricultural biotech products more transparent and timely.
High-level talks earlier this month in Washington between Chinese and U.S. negotiators touched on a variety of nontariff barrier issues. A spokesman for China's Ministry of Commerce, Gao Feng, told reporters Thursday the talks achieved "new progress," adding that technology transfer and intellectual property were among the issues discussed.
Chinese regulatory policies on genetically modified organism seeds are seen as protectionist and favoring domestic development and commercialization of agricultural biotechnology, according to industry observers. Beijing is believed to have spent over $3.5 billion on biotech crop research to help develop its domestic industry.
"The GMO approvals protocols are very oblique and yet have been a huge problem for the U.S.," said Joseph Glauber, a former U.S. Department of Agriculture chief economist and now a senior research fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington.
The financial impact of delays in Chinese approval of U.S. biotech crops is estimated to have resulted in direct impact of nearly $5 billion over five years, according to a study commissioned by the industry trade group CropLife International. When including the "ripple effects" to the overall U.S. economy, the report by researcher Informa estimated impacts topping $14 billion.
In January, China's Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs approved five new biotech traits for imported crops, including varieties of soybeans from Bayer and DowDuPont. It was agency's first approvals since mid-2017 and came during a round of trade talks in Beijing between U.S. and Chinese officials.
"We are encouraged that systemic improvements in the regulatory process in China remain an important focus in ongoing negotiations," said Christi Dixon, a spokesperson for Bayer, which last year completed the acquisition of U.S. seed giant Monsanto. "We support the goal of these negotiations — enabling a predictable, timely, transparent and science-based process that fuels both global innovation and trade."
Added Dixon, "A predictable global regulatory system is essential in ensuring companies can continue to deliver new innovations to farmers around the world in a predictable and timely way."
Genetic traits in seeds have been developed to improve yields and be more resistant to pests, diseases and adverse weather conditions such as drought. Seed companies also have engineered crops to be resistant to weedkillers or herbicides.