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The Good Earth
Agricultural scientists get the most out of the field by using innovative technology
By Wang Hairong | NO. 9 MARCH 2, 2017


Pesticide is applied in a wheat field in Geqiao Village of Mengcheng County, Anhui Province, on February 17 (XINHUA)
Amid skyscrapers a large patch of farmland nestles quietly in Beijing's Haidian District. This field, dubbed the most expensive of its kind in the world, is the testing ground of the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences (CAAS), the leading agricultural research institute in China. With housing prices skyrocketing in the recent decade, fueling frenzied commercial development and urban sprawl, the farmland is a rarity in the city.

On its 10 hectares, agricultural scientists have sown crops, conducted experiments and harvested research fruits. Some research programs carried out in the field are cutting-edge in the world.

China's overall level of agricultural research and development is at the forefront among developing countries, while research on rice functional genomics, avian influenza vaccine and phytase corn (a transgenetic corn carrying an enzyme that increases phosphorus absorption in animals) and other major technologies are globally leading, the 13th Five-Year Plan (2016-20) for Agricultural Science and Technology released by the Ministry of Agriculture, January 25, revealed.

The contribution of science and technology to the growth rate of agricultural output is 56 percent, according to the plan. This indicates that agricultural development is now mainly driven by science and technology rather than traditional production factors such as land and labor, said Li Jiayang, former CAAS President.

Progress has been made in a wide spectrum of agricultural technology, such as breeding desirable crop varieties, livestock raising, plant protection, mechanization and soil improvement.
Cao Aocheng (right), a researcher with the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences, inspects a disease-inflicted ginger field in Houshi Village of Qingzhou, Shandong Province, on September 26, 2013 (COURTESY OF CAAS) 

A field for innovation 

He Zhonghu, a CAAS researcher, recalled the birth of a new variety of wheat in the CAAS testing field. One year, heavy rain poured down on Beijing before the wheat ears had ripened, followed by searing sunshine. He found most of the wheat in the field had perished, except for a handful.

"When I spotted the survivors, I was almost wild with joy. They were invaluable," He said.

Realizing their potential to resist extreme heat, he gathered their seeds and planted them next year in another field on Beijing's outskirts. This time too the wheat survived the extreme heat before harvest. Thus, a new species of heat-resistant wheat was born and began to be popularized.

He is a member of a group that won the award for the most innovative team at the 2016 National Science and Technology Awards. Since 2012, the award has been given to only three teams every year, and this was the first time an agricultural team won it, according to CAAS.

The main task of the team is to collect and preserve wheat germplasm resources, breed new varieties of wheat and provide relevant technical support.

China is a leading producer and consumer of wheat. The crop accounts for 40 percent of national grain consumption, while more than 90 percent of the main varieties of wheat planted in the country were bred by this team, according to the Ministry of Science and Technology (MOST).

The team, set up in the mid-1950s, currently has 82 researchers, including Liu Xu, CAAS Vice President. "Since the beginning of the 1980s, the team has been leading the development direction of wheat genetic improvement in China and has made great contributions to the development of the industry," MOST said in its award citation. "Under the double-cropping system, wheat production technology in China ranks at the leading international level, providing strong scientific support for China to feed 21 percent of the world's population with 9 percent of the world's arable land."

Their innovations include a method to breed dwarf male-sterile wheat, which is resistant to fungal crop diseases like ergot. While conventional wheat flowers self-pollinate, the dwarf wheat's flowers can't because of structural mutations. They can be pollinated only with pollen from other flowers, which opens the door to hybrid breeding.

With dwarf male-sterile wheat, scientists have bred wheat varieties that are high-yielding and more resistant to diseases. In the past 60 years, the wheat yield in China has increased from less than 1,500 kg per hectare to around 9,000 kg per hectare, He said.

The team is also the first in the world to complete D-genome sequencing, a complicated DNA mapping. Molecular markers—DNA fragments—developed from the research have been widely used in 14 countries, according to MOST.

While some CAAS researchers focus on breeding high-yield plants, others seek to protect plants from pests with green technology. A research team headed by Qiu Dewen, Vice President of the Institute of Plant Protection under CAAS, has developed China's first protein biopesticide.

Derived from fungus protein, the biopesticide, unlike conventional chemical ones, induces immunity in plants rather than directly killing pests. Qiu said it is like a vaccine that should be used before the onset of diseases so that plants become more resistant to pests and diseases.

Atailing, the biopesticide, can activate plants' metabolic system and improve crop resistance to insects as well as regulate growth, promote strong seedlings and enhance crop quality and yield, according to Qiu. In January, it won the CAAS Science and Technology Award.

While traditional pesticides kill pests fast, their excessive use affects the environment and people's health. If plants get healthier after the vaccine is administered, the amount of pesticides can be greatly reduced, Qiu pointed out. It is estimated fields treated with the biopesticide are using 30 percent less chemical pesticides.

The effect of the biopesticide has been tested on various plants. Qiu said it was used on two varieties of rice and demonstrated a reduction in green smut, a rice disease, by 22.5 percentage points. At the same time, rice yield increased by more than 15 percent. When used in a field of Gannan navel oranges in Jiangxi Province, it reduced the occurrence of diseases and promoted healthy growth of the trees.

In 2014, the biopesticide was approved by the government and launched in the market, where, according to Qiu, it has been well-received.

Reaching out 

CAAS scientists are using their technology and expertise to benefit farmers across the country. Houshi, a village in Qingzhou of Shandong Province, has received help from researchers at the Institute of Agricultural Resources and Regional Planning (IARRP).

Ginger is the dominant cash crop in the village and can fetch 10 times the income derived from growing wheat and corn or even more. When villagers began to grow the crop, at first, they were overjoyed with their income, which enabled them to buy cars and even houses. But later, the yield declined, and then the crop failed totally because of the presence of harmful micro-organisms in the soil.

In 2013, when IARRP researchers visited the village, they met a family suffering from heavy losses due to the crop decline.

"Usually, after a field has been used to grow ginger for 2-3 years, it needs to rest for 6-7 years before ginger can be planted there again," said Zhou Zhenya, a researcher with the IARRP.

In the past, one commonly used method to kill the pathogens was fumigating the soil with methyl bromide, a colorless, odorless, non-inflammable gas. However, in 1992, the gas was listed as an ozone-depleting substance that needed to be phased out. Cao Aocheng, a CAAS expert working under the UN Methyl Bromide Substitution Plan, was invited to the village to teach farmers appropriate soil fumigation and ginger planting skills.

Researchers found that inappropriate management was a major reason for the failure. Farmers applied a large amount of fertilizer to the field to increase productivity and used flood irrigation to water the crop. Water and excessive nutrients promoted the propagation of harmful micro-organisms. Water became contaminated after encountering soil where pathogenic bacteria and fungi were thriving, and spread the diseases to the entire field.

The experts then advised farmers to use water bags for irrigation, change their shoes before entering different ginger fields and plant corn around the fields to block bacteria-carrying dust.

IARRP researchers also helped a villager, Shi Mingfang, to start the Qingzhou Jinshan Big Ginger Cooperative and established a joint ginger experiment base in the village to test agricultural technologies.

In 2015, the cooperative began to sell ginger online as well. Today, it receives orders from pharmaceutical companies needing quality ginger.

Copyedited by Sudeshna Sarkar 

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