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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 China."

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 tomatoes.

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 strengthened in

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."

David Kinley