China has approved the safety of gene-edited (GE) wheat for the first time, Reuters reports.

The move came at a time when the country was moving cautiously towards the commercial-scale production of genetically modified (GM) food crops, the 8 May report said.

Although China had increased approvals of higher-yielding and insect/herbicide resistant GM corn and soyabean seeds in the past year in a bid to secure its food security, uptake remained slow and cautious due to concerns about the impact on human health and ecology, Reuters wrote.

Unlike genetic modification, which introduces foreign genes into a plant, gene editing alters existing genes to change or improve its performance and is viewed by some scientists as less risky than GM crops.

The world’s largest wheat producer and consumer, China mainly imports GM crops such as corn and soyabeans for animal feed and grows non-GM varieties for food consumption.

However, many Chinese consumers remain concerned about the safety of GM food crops, according to the report.

The approval for GE wheat was seen as a milestone, as the ingredient – used to make pasta, noodles and bread – is mainly grown in China for food consumption, the report said.

“It is a big step, we can see the light for China to open up approvals for other food crops,” a seed industry executive was quoted as saying.

Beijing was also expected to pass new rules this year for the labelling of GM crops used in food products, according to state media reports in March.

The agriculture ministry had also approved a new variety of GM corn with herbicide and insect-resistant traits, including a variety by agricultural biotechnology company Origin Agritech on 8 May, as well as one GE high-yielding corn variety, Reuters wrote.

According to a document published by China’s Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs, the safety certificates have been approved for five years from 5 May.

The world’s biggest importer of soyabeans and corn aimed to increase domestic production through higher yielding seeds and reduce its grains imports of more than 100M tonnes/year, the report said.