December 6, 2015 / 9:14 PM / in 2 years

With China's GMO sector in limbo, local seed firm targets U.S.

BEIJING (Reuters) - A Chinese biotech seed firm is aiming to launch the country’s first genetically modified corn products overseas on the home turf of the world’s top agricultural companies, as Beijing’s reticence over GMO food keeps the domestic market off limits.

The name of Origin Agritech is seen through the windows of the company's headquarters in Beijing, November 27, 2015. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon

The plan by Beijing-based Origin Agritech to test its technology in the United States, which has dominated the sector with GMO giants such as Monsanto, is the latest effort by a Chinese firm to enter the global industry.

Earlier this year, China National Chemical Corp sought to skirt obstacles at home and acquire a tried-and-tested GMO pipeline by bidding for the world’s top agrichemicals firm Swiss-based Syngenta.

Beijing’s GMO policy has at times appeared inconsistent - billions of dollars have been spent on developing technology it hopes will ensure supplies for its 1.4 billion people, while no major food crops have been approved for cultivation given deep-seated anti-GMO sentiment in the country. Bumper harvests in the past decade have also reduced the urgency for new technologies.

“Consumer attitude is one thing, but the government attitude is even more important,” said Huang Dafang, professor at the Biotechnology Research Institute under the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences. That leaves firms like Origin with few options to earn revenues from GMO products in China, he added.

U.S.-listed Origin has invested more than 300 million yuan ($46.90 million) in biotech since 2005 and, without an opportunity to market its product at home, it now plans to enter the United States in 2016, according to a presentation on the Securities and Exchange Commission website.

Entering the U.S. market could take several paths from licensing its technology to setting up a unit there, Origin’s chief financial officer, James Chen, told Reuters.

But getting a foothold in such a highly competitive market will not be easy, experts warn.

TOUGH COMPETITION

Origin’s most advanced product is a corn with two special characteristics, or “traits”, that resist pests while top seed firm Monsanto already markets a GMO corn that combines or “stacks” as many as eight traits to combat pests.

“The only way they might be able to break into the market is if their technology fees are going to be cheaper than Monsanto,” said Carl Pray, professor at Rutgers University’s agricultural, food and resource economics department.

Referring to seed firm Beijing Dabeinong Technology Group’s agreement to test its technology in Argentina, Pray said competition was tougher in the United States. “It’s one thing to do this in Argentina, and another to go into the U.S.”

But Origin’s Chen sees a market for its products there.

“We think the technology has a fundamental value. Farmers are looking for alternatives to current products on offer,” Chen said, adding that Origin would likely seek partners interested in licensing its traits to stack alongside others.

The company will meet with potential partners at December’s American Seed Trade Association conference in Chicago.

But even with a local partner, the Chinese product would need U.S. regulatory approval, which could take years.

A successful U.S. test could, however, boost confidence in Chinese technology and pave the way for Beijing to roll out its products. For Origin, it could mean a better valuation than the current $33.9 million.

The company, which is looking to sell a majority stake in its conventional seed business, says it is undervalued due to the lack of a viable biotech market.

“Our valuation on Nasdaq is much lower than the valuation of seed production companies in China. If we attract investment, our valuation will shoot up,” said CFO Chen.

Reporting By Dominique Patton; Editing by Himani Sarkar

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