Journal of Integrative Environmental Sciences
Interview by Marianne Heselmans with Professor Fusuo Zhang
Students and farmers learning together to promote agriculture green development in China
Many pressing environmental issues occur at multiple scales and require integrative approaches and actions. Professor Fusuo Zhang’s research in China is an example of such research. Agricultural reform and improving production are high priorities in China, but they require consideration of fertilizer practices that impact surrounding lakes and rivers as well cooperation with farmers. In an interview with Marianne Heselmans, Professor Fusuo Zhang provides a background of how his research includes students and farmers to limit fertilizer use and improve agricultural efficiency in China.
Original interview by Marianne Heselmans, published in the NRC (Tuesday April 24th, 2018).
Chinese agriculture needs to become more efficient, but how? Professor Fusuo Zhang encourages Master's students to live among farmers for two years to help them improve farming practices.
As a child, agronomist Fusuo Zhang (1960) often went hungry. On the family farm where he grew up, he got at most two servings of noodles or bread of sorghum and wheat mixture a day. Only when he went to university, could he afford three meals daily. ‘My student bursary was calculated to provide 500 grams of food per day, not enough for a young man,’ he said while in Wageningen, where he received an honorary doctorate on March 7th, 2018.
Now Zhang is a successful research leader at the China Agricultural University, and one of China's most important agricultural advisors. As a student, and later as a professor, he saw grain production increase. Only sixty years ago, Chinese farmers’ yield was the same as African farmers still have: an average of approximately 2 tons per hectare per year. Thanks to government support, Chinese crop yields now average 6 to 8 tons (for comparison: Dutch wheat production is over 10 tons). Since 2013, China has been producing enough rice and wheat that it can feed its own population, basically realizing self-sufficiency.
But the 600 million small Chinese farmers work inefficiently. During the past twelve years, Zhang's group’s research has given a clearer picture of intensive agriculture and challenges. Chinese farmers apply excessive fertilizer to their fields. This overuse of fertilizer leads to severe pollution in lakes and rivers. In a published paper in Science (2010), the group showed how serious soil acidification was, which caught the attention of the government to soil acidification, As a result, Zhang told researchers in Wageningen. ‘Within a week, the prime minister urged the Ministry of Agriculture to take action to solve the problem.’
Zhang's group extended a national demonstration and training program in 2005 through the wide participation of smallholder farmers, which is unique. In March of this year, the researchers published the results of ten-year study (Nature 7 March). From 2005 to 2015, more than 20.9 million farmers across China attended cultivation training, based on the results of 13,123 field trials with maize, rice and wheat. The yield of the trained farmers was on average ten percent higher than that of untrained farmers in neighboring villages. The trained farmers decreased nitrogen emissions by a third per ton of grain, had a higher income and reduced carbon emissions. Thirty-three universities and 1,152 researchers were involved in the training and more than 200,000 advisors and representatives of fertilizer and seed companies participated in the integrative research.
Fusuo Zhang is Professor of Plant Nutrition at the China Agricultural University in Beijing. After his PhD study at the University of Hohenheim (Germany), he introduced nutrient management concepts to China to quantify the nutritional needs of crops and the nutrient loss of fertilizers in the environment. Meanwhile, he is also involved in the professionalization of both grain production and horticulture, and the setting up of demonstration projects for fertilizer and manure management in 200 of the 3000 counties.
Q: How do you manage to reach so many small farmers?
A: “The secret to our success is ongoing interactions with famers through our Master’s students. Traditional agricultural advisors live in the city, and visit a village for two or three hours. Our studies show that farmers have already forgotten their advice after a season. By contrast, our master's students live in a village for two years, among approximately 1,000 farmers. The students promote agricultural training and match twenty of the best farmers with low efficiency farmers, who are often poor and less educated. We found big differences between the two groups. Some of the most effective farmers yield ten tons of wheat per hectare, but the other group only three. The latter group learns more through these interactions with the best farmers."
Q: Why do you focus on small farmers, the Chinese government wants large companies?
A: “Necessary land reforms will take a lot of time. Households must want to transfer land for larger commercial farms to exist, but they are not willing to just do that. China has 240 million farming households growing grain crops and vegetables on an average of 0.6 hectares of land. Two to three family members work each plot. There are currently no alternative work options for all those smallholder farmers. Small farms in Japan and Korea spent 50 years to upscale to 6 hectares in farm size, we expect similar trends in China. Chinese state-owned enterprises can reach 20 hectares or more, as the case in the Netherlands, but that represents only 5% of Chinese agriculture.”
Q: Do young people want to live in those remote villages?
A: “At the moment, 300 agricultural students are living in such villages (named Chinese Science and Technology Backyards). They live alone or in the case of females in groups of two. They do not have their own families yet, and they are very motivated to help the farmers. Local authorities and companies are also happy to cooperate. It would be difficult for them to reach all these remote farming families from big cities. Our students create a platform to reach them.
The fertilizer company participation (private and state-owned companies) is required to deliver the optimized fertilizer formula designed by the universities, which is highly dependent on each crop type and region. But in the experiment, the farmers determine on their own whether they apply fertilizer more precisely, adjust planting times, plow, or adopt better quality seeds. The Nature publication explains why farmers do not always follow advice. Sometimes the information about new technology was too complicated. In those cases the researchers looked for 'translators'. Often, there were not enough laborers to implement the farming advice more precisely because many young family members have moved away.”
Q: You are not a member of the Communist Party. How do you manage to exert so much influence?
A: “I am a member of one of the seven minority parties and thus our advice comes to the government in three ways: through the minority party, because minority parties in China play a role in providing consultation to the government; through our university, we write an annual advisory report; and, through the Chinese Academy of Engineering, a scientific and policy advisory body because I am a member in the academy.”
Q: What do you learn from the Netherlands?
A: “Many Chinese farmers only have primary school education. I see in the Netherlands how important it is that farmers are well-trained. Dutch farmers and commercial horticultural professionals take care of the soil, and operate their farms as a company responding to market demand. We want to train and push our farmers to learn something new.”