China's approval process for GMO grains has become "overly political," "unpredictable and nontransparent", an American industry group said on Thursday, in the strongest criticism of Beijing's biotech policy since China began rejecting thousands of tonnes of genetically modified corn last year.
"In recent years, China's biotech approval process has gone from being slow but predictable to even slower, unpredictable and nontransparent," said the American Chamber of Commerce in a policy report.
China is the world's top importer of soybeans and among the top importers of corn.
All of its soybean imports are genetically modified. However, it rejected around a fifth of its corn imports last year after they were found to contain Syngenta's MIR612 gene, which has not been approved by Beijing.
China's approval of GMO crops for import has slowed from around two years to three years or longer, said David Yeh, vice-chairman of the group's agriculture forum.
Delayed approvals are a "major disruption to trade flows", said the report.
"AmCham China members are concerned that the approval process has become overly political, requiring high-level attention to advance applications through the MOA 9(Ministry of Agriculture)," it added.
The group's members include leading seed firms Monsanto, Bayer CropScience, Syngenta and DuPont.
China has long adopted a cautious attitude to genetically modified crops. Wary of public distrust of the technology, it has not yet allowed any major GMO food crops to be grown in the country, despite investing billions of yuan in research.
Yeh said Beijing's strategic focus on ensuring food security may also be influencing its approach to GMO imports.
"China is putting agriculture and food security in such a high agenda so when it comes to global supply, there could be considerations for access of global raw material versus domestic raw production," he told reporters.
Low public acceptance of GMOs is also a consideration for the Chinese government when looking at approvals, he said.
As of June 2013, China had 19 soybean, corn, cotton and canola traits waiting for final safety certificates or for approval to initiate required local studies, said AmCham. Eleven of those were finally approved.
The industry group believes carrying out local studies is unnecessary for imported crops.
"If there's a low-level presence in the shipment, the country of import will conduct a quick safety risk analysis and if it's proven safe, would accept a shipment without disrupting the trade," said Yeh.
China could be more receptive to such an approach once it approves domestic GMO crops, added Yeh. However the agriculture ministry said last month there is still no timetable for the commercialisation of its own GMO corn and rice.
Major grain traders including ADM and Cargill have said in recent weeks they will limit their handling of crops containing a new genetically modified Syngenta strain known as Duracade until big importers such as China give it their approval.