The investment - an approximate figure to cover the first five years - is a nod to rapidly developing biotech capabilities in China. It sets the scene for greater collaboration over new technologies that could play a role in countering some of the most pressing issues facing food supply systems today. "Having our own research base in Beijing will accelerate innovation and offer powerful opportunities to work more closely with Chinese research institutes, which is all the more relevant now in a world that sees higher global demand for crops," said head of R&D Dave Lawrence. The new centre will be located at the Zhongguancun Life Science Park in Beijing, and will have global scope whilst, at the same time, supporting existing research capabilities in the United States. The focus will be on developing traits in the areas of yield improvement, drought resistance, disease control, and the conversion of biomass for biofuels. Construction is expected to be completed in 2010, but Syngenta will not wait to start the work until then. From this summer temporary facilities will swing into operation adjacent to the site, employing some 100 staff. This staffing level will double when the new building is complete, Syngenta said. GM and food supply There have already been some strong indications that GM commodities are gaining ground as an alternative to non-GM crops affected by high prices. Earlier this year South Korea purchased its first GM corn for use in foods, citing rising prices of non-GM corn and dwindling supplies as the reason for the change in tack. Speaking at the National Farmer's Union Conference in February, Iain Ferguson, chief executive of Tate & Lyle and president of the UK's Food and Drink Federation, said that rising food prices mean there is a need to "face up to the issue of genetic modification and rise to the challenge of helping to foster a fair and scientific debate on an issue that has typically been clouded by suspicion and a lack of trust." "The current economic climate with rising food prices and concerns over long term availability of commodities may well give us the opportunity to begin to do this," he said. Syngenta in China Syngenta has operated in China for the last decade, offering both seed and crop protection products. But the company has spied new opportunities as the economy in China is growing and more food is needed to feed the growing population. Dietary patterns in the country are shifting "from green to protein", spurring demand for meat. This in turn calls for more feed - of which corn is a major component. Another factor is the huge demand for energy in China, which goes hand-in-hand with growing awareness of biofuels. Last May Syntenta announced its plan to acquire a 49 per cent take in Chinese seed company Sanbei with a view to jointly developing corn seed products to meet growing demand driven by changing food patterns and agronomic trends. The transaction was completed earlier this month but Syngenta will not exploit Sanbei's technology outside of China, since Chinese law states that home-spun intellectual property should stay in the country. Last year Syngenta began a five-year collaboration with Beijing's Institute of Genetics and Developmental Biology to develop novel traits for crops like corn, soybean, wheat, sugar beet and sugar cane.