BEIJING China will push for the commercialization of genetically modified soybeans over the next five years as it seeks to raise the efficiency of its agriculture sector, potentially boosting output of the crop by the world's top soy importer and consumer.
China, which has spent billions of dollars researching GMO crops, has already embraced the technology for cotton but has not yet permitted the cultivation of any biotech food crops amid fears from some consumers over perceived health risks.
In its latest five-year plan for science and technology to 2020, China for the first time outlined specific GMO crops to be developed, including soybeans - used in food products such as tofu and soy sauce and for animal feed - and corn.
The blueprint, published on the government's website on Monday, recommended "pushing forward the commercialization of new pest-resistant cotton, pest-resistant corn and herbicide-resistant soybeans".
The use of the technology for corn was flagged in April when an agriculture official said that Beijing could greenlight GMO crops in the next five years. Corn is used mostly for animal feed and industrial products like starch and sweeteners and a move to biotech crops could be less contentious than with soybeans.
Support for new soybean varieties comes as China seeks to overhaul its crop structure. Farmers are being encouraged to switch from growing corn to soybeans and to rotate between crops.
But analysts say boosting soybean production could be difficult without higher subsidies.
China is expected to produce 12.5 million tonnes of soy in 2016/17 but will import a record 86 million tonnes, according to a forecast by U.S. agriculture officials. China permits the import of GMO soybeans for use in animal feed.
Herbicide-resistant soybeans are already planted by most growers in the United States, the world's top soy producer.
"You can't manually kill weeds on the large farms in the north-east," said an executive at a seed company in China. "If if you're going to rotate between soy and corn, herbicide-tolerant soybeans are needed for mechanization," he added, referring to the need for crops to be able to tolerate repeated exposure to weed killers applied by tractors.
But cultivating GMO soybeans is likely to face strong resistance from consumers and a local industry that sells GMO-free soybeans at a premium to imported beans.
"The major production areas for key commodity crops shouldn't be planted with GMOs," said Liu Denggao, vice president of the Chinese Soybean Industry Association.
"Domestic soybeans are extremely desired and trusted by consumers for food."
Commercialization of GMO soy is likely to take a backseat to GMO corn however, said Huang Dafang, professor at the Biotechnology Research Institute under the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences.
The government has previously said it will roll out biotech varieties of industrial crops such as corn before moving to food crops like soya.
"Corn is more important from a production point of view," Huang said.
(Reporting by Dominique Patton; Editing by Richard Pullin)