BAIHUA, China (Reuters) - Chinese geneticist Du Yutao peers at an ultrasound monitor scanning the underbelly of a pregnant sow -- one of China’s latest technological tools to feed its people better.
The 20-odd hogs at this farm in Guangdong province in southern China are no ordinary pigs, but rather surrogate sows carrying cloned piglets.
With a population projected to grow to 1.44 billion by 2030 from 1.33 billion in 2009, according to World Bank figures, Beijing is hunting for cutting-edge technology to provide better quality food.
Du’s colleagues are cloning pigs at a laboratory an hour’s drive from the farm.
They remove DNA from skin cells taken from the ear of a prized boar and transfer them into pig egg cells cleared of their nuclei. The resulting embryos are surgically implanted into surrogate sows.
“Now we import valuable boars from Denmark and the United States. They are costly to buy, transport and susceptible to a lot of disease during transportation,” said Du, head of cloning and genetic engineering at the Beijing Genomics Institute.
“With this technology, we can import small numbers of pigs and mass produce them in China.”
And international experts believe China can take a leading role in promoting the eventual acceptance of cloned animals and even transgenic -- or genetically modified (GM) -- produce.
Ingo Potrykus, the retired, Swiss-based co-inventor of vitamin A-packed “golden rice,” said China could fill a void in securing widespread use and recognition.
“To revolutionize regulation ... it needs a lead country to do so, which is politically and economically independent of the GMO-hysteria of the West,” Potrykus, whose invention has proved essential for rice-dependent countries, wrote in an e-mail.
“China would have this potential and China could benefit a lot because China has a lot of food security problems ahead.”
Potrykus knows a great deal about the difficulties of winning acceptance for GM and cloned products. His variety was withheld from the market for 10 years because of regulations surrounding transgenic food.
At the institute’s laboratory, another geneticist, Zhang Gengyun, is working with colleagues on flasks containing rice saplings -- another Chinese staple.
They want to identify gene segments in rice that are behind high yields and better root systems, so that more rice may be produced using less land and water.
“Now a lot of fertilizers are used and rice cannot totally absorb them. Extra fertilizers are dumped into our water system, which damage our environment,” Zhang said.
China has few conventional tools. It needs to feed 22 percent of the world’s population but has only 7 percent of the world’s arable land. Its agriculture minister said in July that China faced a formidable task in meeting demand for grains such as rice, wheat and corn over the next 10 years.
Its water resources are meager -- amounting to 25 percent of the per capita world average. And a quarter of its water is so polluted it is unfit even for industrial use.
China’s grain harvest stood at 530 million tons of grain in 2009 and it will need to increase annual supply by 4 million tons over the next 10 years. Beijing imported U.S. corn for the first time since 2006 and is the world’s top buyer of soybeans.
“In China, rice is the most important crop and it uses 50 percent of the freshwater China has each year,” Zhang said.
China’s per person consumption of meat is 70 kg (155 pounds) a year, of which 54 percent is pork. That will soar with rising incomes reflecting more affluent areas like Hong Kong, where per capita meat consumption is 120 kg a year, according to Rabobank.
“The government wants to secure food supply. The demand is for fresh meat,” said Jean-yves Chow, senior industry analyst at Rabobank in Hong Kong. “It doesn’t want to rely on meat imports.”
The problem is not China’s alone. Leading economist Jeffrey Sachs published articles in Nature magazine in July calling for serious preparations to feed a global population that will grow to 9.1 billion in 2050 from 6.8 billion now.
“Climate change and other environmental risks, combined with a still growing population expected to reach around 9 billion by 2050 all spell serious trouble,” Sachs, head of the Earth Institute at Columbia University in New York, wrote in an email.
Genetic modification technology will help, he said, but its consequences on human health and the environment must be closely monitored.
The United States is a world leader in producing GM crops and the Food and Drug Adiministration has already approved the sale of food from clones and their offspring, saying the products were indistinguishable from those of non-cloned animals.
It is yet to rule on whether genetically engineered fish is safe to eat.
But genetic modification of food and products from cloned animals meet with resistance in Europe. (For related stories: and).
In China, Du’s department has set up a unit to commercialize cloning and she expects that meat from the offspring of cloned pigs will be on the Chinese market in “a few years.”
Her department is working with China Agricultural University on more muscular and less fatty transgenic pigs -- genetically modified rather than cloned -- by knocking out the MSTN gene that inhibits muscle growth.
“We hope to get pigs with obvious traits of good muscles and faster growth ... a lot of lean meat and less fat,” she said.
Zhang’s team hopes to identify the genes they want and transfer them into target rice species in three years using conventional breeding.
That, he believes, will skirt whatever fears Chinese consumers may have.
“That is not genetic modification. It is conventional breeding ... within 10 years, we can have environmentally friendly species that are water and fertilizer saving,” he said.
China’s Agriculture Ministry declined comment on how stringent new regulations on cloned animals or transgenic products are likely to be.
It has, however, suggested an open approach in certificates issued for experimental planting of transgenic rice in recent years, according to Chinese press reports.
Du said China’s State Food and Drug Administration will need to approve products derived from cloned pigs and any transgenic produce before they are allowed on the market.
While experts say meat from cloned animals is no different from naturally conceived animals, Du said more safety assessments were needed for transgenic products.
“Transgenic animals have potential risks. It needs a long time to evaluate before they can get into market,” she said.
Editing by Maggie Fox and Ron Popeski