China has approved the import of a genetically modified corn strain it blocked last year, causing market turmoil, and has given clearance to biotech soybeans that had been waiting years for clearance, in a sign of improving relations with the United States.
U.S. Agriculture secretary Tom Vilsack said on Wednesday that China approved imports of American-grown Viptera corn developed by Swiss-based Syngenta, known as MIR 162, as well as shipments of biotech soybeans developed by DuPont Pioneer and Bayer CropScience.
Industry sources and analysts said China's change of heart was down to a warmer political climate between Beijing and Washington since the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum last month, where the two announced a joint plan to limit carbon emissions and made breakthroughs on eliminating duties on technology products.
"We believe the approval came because of a better China-U.S. relationship, which has improved since the APEC meeting," said Li Qiang, chief analyst at Shanghai JC Intelligence Co. Ltd, one of the country's leading consultancies.
The green light, for which Syngenta had waited nearly five years, does not represent a fundamental change in Chinese policy towards genetically modified food, since it already allows imports of at least 15 varieties of such crops.
Vilsack said the import approvals did not represent a loosening of China's sluggish regulatory review process for GMO crops, either.
"Their system is what it is," said Vilsack. "You get approvals sometimes, and sometimes you don't."
The practical consequences are also likely to be limited by a big stock overhang in China that is creating a bottleneck for new imports.
Trade sources said Beijing could delay the issuance of 2015 import quotas to private feed mills until March or even April 2015 as new regulations require buyers to first purchase corn from state reserves before being handed down quotas.
Syngenta applied for import approval of MIR 162 in 2010, while Germany's Bayer has been waiting seven years for China to approve a new soybean seed called LL55.
There remains a backlog of products waiting for a license to sell into China.
Another Syngenta genetically modified variety known as Agrisure Duracade, which U.S. farmers harvested for the first time this autumn, has not been approved for import in China.
"China has not approved other GMO strains (by Syngenta), and that may become a potential risk for business," said Li at JC Intelligence.
China may be dragging its feed on new GMO approvals as government officials fear over-reliance on foreign GMO technologies.
China's Agriculture Minister Han Changfu said in May that the government needed to develop its own GM technologies to meet its food security needs.
Syngenta's MIR 162 corn seed came under the spotlight in 2013 after Beijing forced some 1.2 million tonnes of corn to turn back due to detection of this unapproved strain.
Commodity traders Cargill Inc and Archer Daniels Midland Co, along with dozens of farmers, have sued Syngenta over MIR 162, claiming hundreds of millions of dollars in damages because of the disruption caused by the ban.
China's Agriculture Ministry's Biosafety Office said it will soon make an official announcement but declined to give any details.