Monthly Archives: March 2010

Google's China puzzle

With all the hype around the tension between Google and the Chinese government, one  could easily forget that Google is more than just a search engine – the firm publishes on a daily basis which of its services are blocked or partially blocked in the mainland.

In fact, its many services are often syndicated to major multimedia players but that may not be the case for much longer: China Unicom plans to remove Google’s search function from its new handsets while China Mobile is said to be thinking of cancelling its search agreement.

The 400 million netizen question? What strategy will Google deploy to re-enter the Chinese market once the storm has passed.


Don't discard chicken crap…

Chinese farmers are leaving it to the philosophers to decide who came first, the chicken or the egg. While waiting for the answer [and collecting the eggs], another side-product of poultry has captured their interest: excrement… 

Building on a growing body of regulation, capital inflow and international cooperation, farmers are increasingly turning their attention to the development of rural energy. More than 105 national standards – including “domestic biogas stoves”, “household biogas lamps” or “technology rules of biogas fermentation for houseold in rural areas” – have been passed, signalling a keen interest from the government. Close to USD 1 billion has been poured in renewable rural energy in the past few years.

Biogas figures proeminently in the drive to make the best from one’s local environment. More than 30 million biogas tanks have been installed in households. They even sometimes come with biomass stoves, which not only improve the “fuel” efficiency bur also reduce CO2 emission.

Why not hold the next global climate talks in the Chinese countryside?

A debate on GM rice in China?

The Chinese government has recently approved a strain of genetically engineered rice – an important step in becoming the first country producing biotech rice commercially. Following international safety concerns, China had stopped the commercialization of new GM varieties in 2000 – more than 100 GM rice varieties remained in field testing.

It is no secret that China has significantly invested  in genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in the past 20 years. Not surprisingly, the emphasis has been on improving the output, quality and resistance of rice varieties – China produces 31% of the world’s rice and 20% of its corn but only has 7% of the world’s arable land.

A recent survey in China has shown that more than half of the respondents ignored they were buying transgenic produce. While this seemed to cause few problems for most food, GM rice appears much more controversial in China. Issues ranging from the impact on farmers’ income to China’s agriculture technological trajectories are debated in the chatrooms with, seemingly, little political interference. This is good news: GM deserve a broad discussion among all strands of society.

A new type of Chinese factory

Ever heard of BGI? The Beijing Genomics Institute (BGI) is, according to Nature, China’s premier genome-sequencing institute. Using the formula for goods, BGI uses a cheap (and increasingly qualified) workforce, coupled with high-end imported equipment. The value proposition? Work twice as fast and for half the price.

While China has become the world’s factory for pretty much everything, BGI intends to create a genomic tree of life covering the major evolutionary branches of plants, animals and humans. After having sequenced the genome of indica rice, cucumber, chicken, silkworm and of the giant panda, the institute is now looking into other big cats (lion, tiger and leopard). Besides these noble scientific endavours, it also works on identifying genes critical in the development of cancers.

Genomic sequencing remains a capital intensive business and governments may not share (or fund) BGI’s ambition to sequence everything. In the long-run, the survival of BGI will depend on how much firms (e.g. pharmas) and research centers will be willing to outsource their genomic sequencing. If BGI’s business model prevails, watch out for genomes turning into commodities.