Researchers from the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) have identified and retraced a key gene sequence from an ancient type of corn to develop a new corn type that triples the protein content, state media Xinhua reported.
The new corn type developed from the “ancient corn”, also known as Wild Mexican Corn, is expected to have a protein content of 12.7%, according to data collected from trials in Hainan province in southern China.
“Increasing protein content of corn is a major strategic requirement to ensure national food security, and it is also one of the important ways to ensure the healthy development of livestock and poultry breeding sector and feed processing sector in China,” said one of the researchers Wu Yongrui from CAS.
“Compared with modern corn, the protein content of ‘wild corn’ is three times higher,” Wu added.
Corn is a critical ingredient in China’s animal feed sector and serves as the main source of energy content for hogs, poultry, and livestock. Corn accounts for more than 70% of the content in China’s animal feed formula.
Moreover, soybean meal is the main protein ingredient in feed, and China imports more than 90 million tons of soybeans each year to crush into meals and oil. The majority of soybean meal is used by the feed sector.
China is estimated to crush nearly 95 million tons of soybean in 2022/23 marketing year which implies an output of 74-75 million tons of soybean meal.
From the perspective of domestic planting, both corn and soybean plantings are concentrated in northern and northeastern China. Every year, Chinese farmers have to choose between planting one type or the other depending on the level of subsidies they receive from the government.
China’s corn plating area rose from 412.6 million hectares in 2020/21 marketing year to 433.24 million hectares in 2021/22 and is now expected to shrink to less than 430 million hectares in this marketing year.
On the contrary, the total soybean planting area fell from 98.82 million hectares in 2020/21 to 94 million hectares in 2021/22. It is projected to rebound sharply to 99.33 million hectares in 2022/23, reflecting a strong inverse relationship between soybean and corn planting areas in China.
Hence, higher protein content in corn could help alleviate China’s reliance on soybean imports and is also in line with the country’s ambition to achieve self-sufficiency and food security.
Meanwhile, the new corn seed could also cut the use of nitrogen fertilizer, according to Wu.