September 13, 2008

China's Crops Challenge

found on flickr in snrephoto's photostream

With all of the hype surrounding China's economy and its modernization, it can be easy to forget that China still faces some very basic development challenges, namely, how to feed itself. The problem of feeding a large population is compounded by water shortages, land degradation, rural migration to urban centers, rising costs of inputs such as fertilizer and diesel, lack of technological development of the agriculture sector, and the oftentimes conflicting goals of reducing harm to the environment while boosting agricultural output.

As with many of the challenges facing China, its current leadership seems to have a clear head about the problem and is taking proactive measures to develop solutions. This is in stark contrast to the pre Opening and Reform agricultural policies that were driven by an irrational desire for food independence and marked by crackpot schemes, such as protecting crops from birds by mobilizing the masses nationwide to go out into the fields and simultaneously bang on pots and pans. Even worse were the times when the fickle leadership ignored agricultural policy all together in vainglorious attempts to leap ahead of the West in industrial output.

China has made tremendous progress in feeding itself over the past several decades, and is fortunate enough to now actually have a growing problem with obesity (that's not meant to be callous, imagine how people in sub-Saharan Africa would marvel at the idea of needing to 'exercise' to lose weight). Most of the credit goes to the farmers, but the government should be given its due for getting out of the way economic policy-wise and for providing financial and technological support. The process of finding solutions to large scale problems is never easy, but the government's large cash reserves and its willingness to experiment makes for a pragmatic approach that suits China well.*

One such pragmatic initiative is the soon to be launched USD 3.5 Billion GM crops project, aimed at taking GM crops from the laboratory to the fields. Given the vociferous backlash in Europe, China is wisely taking a cautious approach to the commercialization of GM crops. Quoted in Science magazine,
Dr. Zeng Yawen of the Biotechnology and Genetic Resources Institute of the Yunnan Academy of Agricultural Sciences sums up my feelings nicely: "For consumers, the safety of GM crops is the biggest worry. Just like some people are afraid of ghosts, some people are afraid of GM crops."

China's GM efforts have already yielded some significant victories. The 1997 commercialization of GM cotton has led to the various varieties being planted on 70% of China's land area devoted to cotton production. Huang Dafang, former director of the Biotechnology Research Institute of the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences, estimates that the spread of GM cotton has reduced China's use of pesticides by 650,000 tons since its introduction.

GM rice is the goal China's crop scientists have set their sites on, and is likely to receive a large share of the GM project funding. The use of GM rice is not only good for farmer's economically, but the reduced, or often eliminated, need for pesticides is beneficial for their health and the environment. Some strains of GM rice might even allow farmers to grow the crop in the eight percent of China's soil which was previously unfit because of a high salt content. If successful, the commercialization of GM rice will never garner as much press attention as China's space program, but I would argue it will do far more to improve China's future.

*In some ways, this willingness to experiment to find practical solutions marks China's leadership out as one of the more progressive governments in the world. This is something that not only other governments, but the people of other nations, would do well to take note of. Before the hate mail starts pouring in, I will concede that the Chinese leadership's progressive streak is not found consistently throughout all government policy.

GM project quotes and figures obtained from 'China Plans $3.5 Billion GM Crops Initiative', Science, 5 September 2008.

GM rice 'good for Chinese farmers' health and wealth, SciDev.Net

Gene for salt tolerance found in rice, SciDev.Net

EurekAlert! Sept. 19, 2008: A study to be published in Science has found that planting GM cotton modified to produce its own insecticide also reduces pest populations in neighboring fields.

EurekAlert!, Oct. 3, 2008: Scientists identify gene that may contribute to improved rice yield

SciDev.Net, Oct. 21, 2008: China's Premier identifies transgenic rice as top priority

Danwei, Oct. 28, 2008: Yu Jianrong: Farmers have the right to keep land for themselves

SciDev.Net, Nov. 23 2008: China's GM ambition raises biosafety concerns

China Daily, Nov. 21 2008: Land erosion 'threat to food supply'

The Green Leap Forward, Nov. 22 2008: Watergy: China's looming national security crisis

EurekAlert!, Jan. 30, 2009: Industrialization of China increases fragility of global food supply

SciDev.Net, Feb. 3, 2009: China urged to rethink water monitoring

WSJ China Journal, Feb. 15, 2009: China's drought could be sign of things to come

Guardian, March 5, 2009: China to plough extra 20& into agricultural production amid fears that climate change will spark food crisis

SciDev.Net, March 5, 2009: Wasted Chinese straw 'could be food and energy source'

SDN:Anti-H5N1 rice could protect poultry, say scientists

SDN:Chinese farmers could cut fertiliser use, keep yields

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