China's approval of three canola traits uncertain as February deadline looms

“Patience is a virtue”

– William Langland

It’s been six years in the making as the Canadian canola industry waits for the approval of three canola traits for export into the Chinese market — Bayer’s TruFlex (introduced under Monsanto), Optimum Gly, owned by Corteva, and BASF’s Rf3.

Whether it’s the opportunity for expanded application windows in-crop, or the demand to double Canada-China agriculture and agri-food trade by 2025, the industry is waiting patiently for full commercialization of these biotech traits.

Of the three traits awaiting approval by China, TruFlex’s intended 2019 commercial release has everyone following this very closely.  According to Trish Jordan, public and industry affairs director for Bayer CropScience, the company has set a February approval deadline in order for farmers to seed Truflex varieties in spring, 2019.

Even though that window for approval is getting tighter, Jordan confirmed to RealAgriculture on Thursday that, “We are still confident China will grant import approval of TruFlex Canola in time for 2019 planting.”

The Rf3 trait has actually been previously approved by China in combination with the Invigor/Liberty production system, however there is an outstanding request to approve the standalone trait for licensing purposes. The commercial release of the Optimum Gly trait is aimed at 2020.

Fresh off a very encouraging trade mission to China, the Minister of Agriculture and Agri-food Lawrence MacAulay emphatically stated at Grow Canada that, “of course (the canola trait approval) came up, and it did not happen. Nothing is fast; all governments are slow, but in China, it’s different. We brought it up and it’s not happening right now, anyhow. They have to approve them and they have not done that yet.”

Croplife Canada president and CEO, Pierre Petelle was just in China and felt, “everything I heard was positive, and they want more Canadian canola and there is no obvious reason that (the traits) are not being approved.”

Not everyone is as optimistic.

Based on several conversations with stakeholders in the canola industry over the past month, opinions on whether TruFlex approval will take place in time are varied.  There are two main themes on what to watch out for:

China’s opinion of biotech

The people of China are very mistrusting of GMOs. In a recent edition of the Economist the attitude of the Chinese to biotech food was displayed in some very anti-science terms.

In a survey released by the A study published this year on the website of Nature, a British science journal, found that just over one in ten of respondents to a survey in China had a positive view of gm food. More than 45% were opposed to it. Only about 12% said they trusted information on the topic provided by their own government. Fewer than one-quarter said they had faith in scientists’ views. Nearly one in seven believed gm technology to be “a form of bioterrorism targeted at China”.

As China attempts to commercialize some of its own biotech crop traits within the decade, President Xi has some convincing to do of his own citizens. Some stakeholders I have talked to off the record are unsure that the Chinese government is currently that motivated to approve anymore biotech traits for Canada when it has satisfactory canola supplies without the added approval.

U.S./China trade tensions

Other people within the industry believe that the U.S./China trade war has created an obstacle for the approval of these traits based on their development and parent companies being so tied to the U.S.  Some do not believe this line of thought because Bayer (European) now owns Monsanto.

Wednesday’s developing story regarding the Canadian arrest of Chinese telecom giant Huawei’s CFO in Vancouver, B.C, on December 1st, is a new breakthrough that clearly brings Canada to Chinese attention in a very controversial manner.  The bail hearing for Wanzhou Meng happens December 7, and the U.S. is seeking extradition. Canada is now firmly in the middle of the U.S./China trade battle centred on intellectual property and national security.

Also consider:

Canada has, so far, done a reasonably good job maintaining a good relationship with China through the U.S./China trade battle, but this week’s arrest could be very unfortunate timing for those counting on China to finally approve these canola traits. You cannot ignore the politics right now and how it impacts decisions that should be based on science alone.

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