Tag Archives: food security

Yuan Longping, 1930-2021

Chinese agronomist Yuan Longping, the 'Father of Hybrid Rice', seen in a 1981 file photo selecting hybrid rice specimens.

IN THE 1950s and early 1960s, there was serious concern that Asia could not feed itself, particularly China, afflicted by the famine induced by Mao’s Great Leap Forward.

That is a distant memory thanks largely to the agronomist Yuan Longping, ‘the Father of Hybrid Rice’, seen above in a 1981 photograph. Yuan died in hospital on May 21 following a fall in March. He was 91.

Yuan was a pioneer in developing the higher-yield hybrid rice varieties that fed China and the region’s growing population. An estimated one-fifth of all rice now comes from hybrid species resulting from his breakthrough discoveries.

He started work on these while teaching at Hunan Agricultural University in Anjiang in Hunan province in the 1950s, publishing his first research paper in 1964. His first cross-breeding successes came in the early 1970s; he developed his breakthrough hybrid, Nan-you No. 2, which yielded 20% more than existing rice varieties, in 1973, by when he had become a research professor at the Hunan Academy of Agricultural Sciences.

Yuan and his colleagues had refined their seed production technologies by 1975, allowing the large-scale production of hybrid rice to begin. Nan-you No. 2 was put into commercial production the following year.

According to obituaries in state media, the difference in yield was sufficiently great to feed an additional 70 million people a year. With higher yields, farmers could grow more rice and switch hectarage to other crops to provide greater food security. 

Yuan presented his work to the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines (IRRI) in 1979, setting off an avalanche of regional hybrid rice research. Our man wet to the calves from standing in paddy says he recalls the stir that Yuan’s presentation caused.

In 1984, Yuan was appointed the inaugural director-general of the China National Hybrid Rice Research and Development Center in Changsha and took on a growing national profile in advancing agricultural research inside China and promoting hybrid rice and China’s scientific standing internationally. He received the highest state honour, the Medal of the Republic, in 2019.

Yuan continued to develop hybrid rice strains that could adapt to different growing environments, working most recently on rice that could grow in saline-alkali water, until shortly before his death.

Recognised internationally for his work, if not the household name outside his field that he was in China, Yuan shared the prestigious World Food Prize in 2004. His citation said he had ‘discovered a genetic phenomenon in rice and then developed the technologies essential for breeding the first hybrid rice variety ever created’. 

It also said that Yuan had ‘helped create a more abundant food supply and more stable world’. A finer epitaph no man could hope for.

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One Crop Failure From Catastrophe

A peasant is happily showing her harvested wheat in Ganyu County, east China's Jiangsu Province, Oct. 17, 2011.

China’s farmers have been buying land abroad, from Africa to South America, and they should be buying more, according to the prominent Chinese economist David Daokui Li, to forestall a potentially catastrophic grain shortage that faces the country.

Li suggests that it would only take one bad crop to throw the world into food shortage. “We can imagine that with the frequency and severity of natural disasters in China as well as in other parts of the world, the overall global grain output will be decreased, which will pose a potentially grave threat to grain security, leading to worldwide food shortages and resulting in global inflation in food prices,” he says.

Li comments came in an interview published by Insead, the French management school that has a partnership with Tsinghua University, where Li is Director of the Center for China in the World Economy. He is also a member of the Monetary Policy Committee of the People’s Bank of China.

Buying more farm land overseas, Li says, “will not only work towards China’s self-interest, but will also contribute to helping to solve the wider global grain supply problem.”

China’s leadership has been repeatedly expressing its concern about the future of the country’s grain supplies. Regardless of record harvests being reported year after year for seven years despite a string of natural disasters, there is no hiding  the challenges facing China’s growers of wheat, rice and corn. A richer and growing population, urbanization and natural and man-made water shortages have  left supply struggling to keep up with rising demand.

The vulnerability of the country’s harvest, particularly the wheat harvest, increasingly concentrated on the drought-prone North China Plain, is only too clear to see. China is reaching the the edge of its capacity to keep its grain harvests increasing. Agri-technology is still boosting fruit and vegetable yields, but grain may have reached its limits after decades of seed and fertilizer improvement. In addition, grain farming remains inefficiently small scale and labour intensive, as is suggested by the photo above of a farmer from Ganyu County in Jiangsu. Acreage and younger farmers alike are also being lost to towns, exacerbating the longer-running effects of erosion, desertification and other environmental damage.

Stocks and imports have covered the gap with growing demand, forestalling, so far, the sort of shortages that Li fears. China imports more than 4 million tonnes of corn (mainly for animal feed) and more than 1 million tonnes of both wheat and barley a year. But being subject to world commodity markets pushes up prices, and no country likes to feel it can’t be self-sufficient in food, especially when it has an increasing number of mouths to feed.

The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization estimates China to have 137 million hectares of arable land. China itself reckons 120 million hectares to be the minimum needed to maintain food security. All agree that the hectarage is moving in the direction of the smaller number, with the shrinkage of the area under grain shrinking causing most concern. Better water management, a national priority under the current five year plan, can reclaim some land for farming, but beyond that, as Li suggests, there is only one place to get any more.

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Drought Diplomacy

A group of more than 40 officials from China, Africa and the U.N. have been in Beijing for three days discussing how to reduce the risks of drought. It has been technical stuff for policy makers on drought monitoring, water resource management and drought resilient farming, as well as dealing with the social and economic impacts of droughts. The meeting was part of Beijing’s overall dialogue with Africa, but these are all topics of obvious mutual interest, given the severe droughts that China has been experiencing such as the one continuing in the south and southwest of the country and the recurring ones on the North China Plain.

Africa’s droughts, like those in China, are expected to become more frequent and widespread as a result of climate change. The Horn of Africa is currently suffering the continent’s worst drought in 60 years, for which Beijing has promised $82 million in emergency grain and relief aid. Techniques and practices that China uses at home as well as farming methods such as film mulching to preserve for crops what water there is in arid areas are applicable in Africa (and vice versa).

Drought is one of the leading threats to Africa’s development as agriculture is the main means of livelihood for most of the continent’s vast rural population. Beijing is rarely rigid over what aid it will provide a country, and Chinese firms see investment opportunities in water management systems and export markets for technology they develop for home. More than 90% of Africa’s farmland relies solely on rainfall for irrigation.

The lack of water management systems in Africa means that drought also has a far more profound impact on food supplies there than it does in China, which is yet again forecasting a record grain harvest. However, this relatively greater vulnerability prompts a second-level concern among Africans, that China might divert grain and livestock production from the farmlands it owns in Africa to make up potential food shortfalls caused if not by its own droughts then by its growing food demands and changes in consumption patterns. That could put Africa’s ability to feed itself even further beyond it. Last year, African nations needed to import $34 billion worth of food to feed their growing cities. Apart from a potential need to increase the volume of its food imports, it also faces the risk that Chinese demand would drive up the cost of food on world commodities markets.

For the past two decades, Chinese companies have been buying African farmland, mostly but far from all, smallholdings and family farms. Chinese own farms in 18 of Africa’s 50 or so countries through at least 63 investments from Angola to Zimbabwe. There are at least 1,100 Chinese agricultural scientists and experts working in Africa, where China has at least 11 research stations, and at least 1 million farm laborers.  All those ‘at leasts’ are because the numbers are based on Chinese official estimates from 2009. They likely undercount the country’s current farming activity on the continent.

It is easy to scaremonger here and to be critical of China’s engagement with Africa. In fact, cheap credit, world-class infrastructure companies, political pragmatism and, as noted above, a willingness to build what is asked for make for a compelling case to many African leaders to accept Chinese aid and investment. That said, China has its national interests, as does any Western aid donor to Africa, even if it is likely to express those in different ways. There is also a lack of transparency which commingles China’s state aid, trade financing and private investment. Nor should the impact that Chinese aid and investment often has on local environmental, social and labor conditions be sugarcoated.

The result of the Beijing meeting will likely be the emergence of some consensus on priority areas for co-operation between China and Africa on drought alleviation, and more infrastructure contracts related to that for Chinese firms in Africa. No doubt critics will deride them as further Chinese colonization of Africa this time by way of “drought diplomacy,” but this is increasingly the modern face of development assistance, which looks a lot more like commercial investment.

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