* China approved one new biotech product for import last year
* US industry says approvals fewer, slower than before
* Industry group says govt improved public understanding of GMOs
By Dominique Patton
BEIJING, March 21 (Reuters) - China is approving fewer new biotech crops for import than before, hampering the launch of new products globally and hurting trade, an American industry group said on Tuesday.
China does not permit the planting of any genetically modified varieties of staple food crops amid deep-seated consumer opposition. But it does allow the import of GMO crops, such as soybeans for use in its huge animal feed industry.
The number of annual approvals has fallen to just one last year, down from three in previous years, according to China's agriculture ministry.
"The trend is moving in the wrong direction in terms of the product being approved in the past few years," said Gao Yong, co-chairman of the agriculture group at the American Chamber of Commerce in China.
Gao, who is also China president at global biotech giant Monsanto Co, told reporters he was not sure why there were fewer approvals.
Chinese government officials were not immediately available for comment.
The United States is the biggest producer of GMO crops and one of China's top suppliers of soybeans. It has long been a pioneer in technology aiming to protect crops against insects or allow them to resist herbicides.
China has said it supports biotechnology to raise the efficiency of its agriculture sector and that it plans to commercialize new GMO varieties of corn and soybeans in coming years.
But public acceptance of biotechnology is a key challenge for the future introduction of GM crops in China, and despite attempts by the government to persuade consumers of the safety of such foods, opinions remain highly polarised.
In a paper on China's agricultural policy, the American Chamber of Commerce said the government and academics have helped to improve public understanding of biotech products.
But Gao said the industry was "extremely disappointed" that China only approved one new biotech product for import in 2016, a Bayer CropScience Ltd soybean. Eight other products were seeking approval.
There were also nine products waiting for approval for local field trials, the step prior to applying for a safety certificate and full import approval. One of those - a Monsanto soybean product - was approved, said Gao.
Other products seeking China market access include GMO corn and cotton.
Approvals of imported biotech products currently takes about six years in China, compared with up to three in other major markets, Gao said.
Beijing has reduced the number of times its expert committee meets to review applications from three to "at least two". Decisions to approve the applications were only made once a year.
(Reporting by Dominique Patton; Editing by Randy Fabi)