Breeding better vegetables at Beijing Centre
Before agricultural reform began to sweep rural China, fresh
vegetables at reasonable prices were hard to find, especially for the country's
200 million city dwellers.
Today, farmers who used to grow grains and vegetables according
to central plans created by government bureaucrats are free to choose what to
grow and where to market it. Increasingly, rural entrepreneurs are shuttling
between villages and cities to bargain at wholesale and retail markets. Crop
diversification - away from basic grains - and a liberalization of marketing
controls are making the Chinese rural economy boom.
At the Beijing Vegetable Research Centre, on the outskirts of
the capital, dozens of China's leading botanical scientists work to ensure that
the vegetables reaching urban rice bowls are the freshest, most nutritious,
palatable, and attractive that nature can provide. As with many other aspects of
applied plant research and technology in China today, outside experience and
scientific expertise are needed to help achieve this goal.
Staff members of Beijing Research Centre carefully monitor the
growth of more than 100 varieties of hybrid vegetables
Picking her way carefully through a field of almost 100
varieties of broccoli from around the world, Chen Hang, the Centre's Director,
explains, "Before the reforms and the launching of our research programme,
vegetable crop losses were often as high as 50 per cent and quality was
inconsistent. Here we concentrate on developing varieties that are disease and
weather resistant, on ensuring good seed and improving post-harvest storage, and
on basic extension and training for a growing number of farmers throughout
Government agencies in charge of vegetable production used to
issue orders to communal organizations, but new they provide individual farmers
and cooperatives with suggestions, loans, and economic and technical information
based, in large part, on what is being tried at the Centre. As a result, the
total area planted in vegetables around 33 big cities is growing at almost 10
per cent a year. The vegetable trade volume at the country's urban free markets
now surpasses that in government-run retail shops.
The Centre's researchers are giving top priority to developing
vegetables that withstand higher and lower temperatures and that are disease-
and pest-resistant. They are now breeding new types of tomatoes resistant to
virosis and late blight; cucumbers
resistant to downy mildew and soft rot; and eggplants resistant
to verticillium wilt and parasitica Dast. Work is also under way on
cold-resistant spinach and cucumber, and on heat-resistant and non-waterlogging
Such experiments require more than simple introduction of other
varieties from China or abroad. It is essential, instead, to apply plant
breeding experiences from abroad to local conditions throughout the country.
Such international technical transfer of on-site research and development is
being sponsored through a $680 000 grant from the United Nations Development
Programme (UNDP), the world's largest multilateral source of grants for
technical aid to the developing world.
Under an arrangement worked out in 1979 between UNDP and the
Beijing Academy of Agricultural Sciences, the Vegetable Research Centre is being
China's top botanists are aiming for disease- and weather
resistance, good seeds, and improved post-harvest storage several different
ways. For example, Chinese researchers were sent to Europe and the United States
for a period of ten months to study breeding and post-harvest physiology. A 40
per cent increase in output of Chinese cabbage, a mainstay of the country's
diet, is attributed to the knowledge acquired by one of the Centre's researchers
during a stay of several months in California, and 60 per cent of total
production is now in the improved variety."
Foreign experts also come directly to the Centre to provide
technical training and consultation on equipment purchasing for new
laboratories. One eminent vegetable breeder came to help set up facilities for
analyzing post-harvest physiology. Another brought expertise in the use of
climate chambers and physiological analysis of the soil. Foreign exchange
provided by UNDP goes to purchase new foreign-made equipment, and the Government
provides the local funds to purchase land for experimental plots.
The four-hectare breeding farm surrounding the Centre is like a
garden of Eden. Almost 100 types of fruits and vegetables and a wide variety of
flowers are carefully nurtured under China's powerful summer son. Under
protection of plastic covered greenhouses, special breeds of green peppers and
eggplants are cross-bred to develop the variety best suited to a certain growing
season in some particular part of China.
The Centre also invites cooperative- and county-level extension
people to visit and learn about its innovations, and some 24 000 people have
already trained there.
The application of modern technology and the introduction of
free markets is serving to boost rural incomes in rural China and, at the same
time, to serve better the needs of an increasingly consumer-oriented urban
population. But the process of Chinese agricultural modernization is only
beginning. "We love and respect nature," says Chen, "but now we're beginning to
work hard on frozen vegetables."