Growing New Ears of Corn
The ancient Silk Road connected civilisations across Asia, Africa and Europe, crossing deserts and encompassing cultural and economic exchanges in different nations. As a trade route, it was a band of agricultural trade and communications. Agricultural products, such as eggplants, peppers and lentils, were introduced to China, where they were widely grown. Nowadays, roles have reversed and high- quality crop varieties are being promoted to other regions along the Belt and Road.
Beijing, as the nation’s scientific and technological innovation and international exchange centre, has limited cultivated land. In recent years, it has relied on science and technology to boost development along the Belt and Road region, and its advanced seed and
other agricultural technology are not only leading the nation, but gaining global recognition in the process.
Zhao Jiuran, an expert of the Beijing Academy of Agriculture and Forestry Sciences’ Corn Research Centre, talks about the ‘‘Grain in the Ear" (the ninth solar term that marks the end of graingrowing conditions and serves as a reminder to farmers that this is the last chance to sow crops).
Zhao explains that, “Taking the bullet train back to Beijing, I enjoy the fastpaced scenery along the way. From south to north, the wheat harvest season moves quickly.” But Zhao’s not just interested in the wheat harvest. He’s also concerned about planting corn in summer.
Zhao oversaw the development of a special corn variety, the Jingkenuo 2000, which, after years of promotion, is now planted on about 333,000 hectares, or 50 percent of the total corn planting area nationwide. It won the “National Fresh Corn Science and Technology Contribution” Award.
Jingkenuo 2000, planted in the Republic of Korea for about 10 years, is quite popular with people there, who, like other East Asians, are fond of sticky grains and sweet taste. Some years ago, Korean rice wasn’t meeting market demand because of limited land and high costs, so the country began to import corn from China. Over a long term period, Jingkenuo 2000 gained recognition and dealers from the Republic of Korea started to import. In 2005, Jingkenuo 2000 was the Republic of Korea’s first Chinese corn variety to pass a foreign examination.
Jingkenuo 2000 has also been widely planted in Vietnam where it has ample rainfall, sunshine and suitable temperatures, although it was introduced through its border trade. Because of its high output and resistance to disease this corn variety has become the second major commercial crop after rice, with an annual cultivation area above 66,600 hectares.
In July 2017, three technicians from Vietnam came to Beijing Academy
of Agriculture and Forestry Sciences to take part in a cultivation training session. Li Chenggui, the Academy’s president, addressed the gathering and said, “Cooperation is not a oneway technological channel. As seeds are sown along the Belt and Road, a bridge of communication is built, expanding the influence of China’s advanced agricultural technology and seed resources.”
As corn spreads to more countries, such as Cambodia, Myanmar and Thailand, Zhao remarks, “High-quality products come first,” but at the same time he keeps a clear mind and says, “We don’t do our R&D for exports. Our corn is popular in foreign countries for its quality.” But the story goes back further, when the Beijing Academy of Agriculture and Forestry Sciences began its new corn R&D in 1996, well before Jingkenuo 2000 was exported along the Belt and Road and hybridisation was completed in 2000. There were numerous attempts in different places until the new corn type was included in a regional trial and organised by the Ministry of Agriculture in 2003.
The following year, Yu Shilong, from Tonghua, Jilin Province, got ahold of some of the seeds and planted them on his farm. To his surprise, he had a great harvest with big cobs and plenty of seeds. Then, in 2006, it passed a national exam and began being sold nationwide and its productivity and its quality became well-known both at home and abroad.
Jingkenuo 2000 has succeeded in increasing corn output by 32 percent or more, making it the most widely planted corn nationwide. Zhao says proudly, “The corn is ready for eating after boiling or quick-freezing and tastes soft, glutinous and sweet even after being stewed.”
Since the market is the sole criterion for its success, Jingkenuo 2000 corn has been successful as a favourable market product thanks to its quality, making it suitable for trade. But the real key to its market demand are its high yields.
When Zhao was asked, “Can you tell us what it is about Jingkenuo 2000 that brings such high yields?” he grew excited, since the answer is in the hybrid corn R&D, the very thing he’s been engaged in for more than 30 years. In the past, advantages of various hybrid corn varieties weren't so obvious, and most came from matches conducted by farmers themselves.
Zhao added, “We’ve made breakthroughs in the original hybrid model to bring greater advantages to corn. We matched a hard type with a farinaceous type, making the corn softer and tastier.”
The Beijing Academy of Agriculture and Forestry Sciences has made use of some DH haploid technology introduced from the US in 2005, with pollinating hybrid corn seeds, with 10 pairs of corn chromosomes evolving into a homogeneous breed through scientific experimentation. Zhao explained, “The original homogeneous breed would take six to seven rotations, or at least three to four years to take shape, but nowadays just takes a year,” which explains higher yields.
Research and development on Jingkenuo 2000 began in 1996. After four years of trials, the optimal combination appeared. It passed a national examination in 2006, and, according to the director, “Technology, either good or bad, is ultimately reflected in the product. The key here is constant innovation and enhancement.”
In this, Zhao commented on twists and turns in R&D, saying he still feels lucky getting the high-quality seed after dealing with pitfalls, because many varieties failed to yield any result or had to be eliminated midway through experiments. The Beijing Agriculture and Forestry Sciences Academy’s Corn Research Centre was set up in 1997, and, for now, Zhao is leading his team to cultivate over 30 corn varieties to meet various needs.
A Tianjianuo variety being promoted combines sweet and glutinous varieties and is rich in vitamins and folic acid, with 295 micrograms of folic acid per 100 grams of grain. Apart from scientific innovations, the Research Centre is also thinking globally, with a Belt and Road Fresh Corn Demonstration Project approved by the Agriculture Ministry and new varieties to be promoted in Southeast Asia to benefit more people.
The Beijing Corn Seed Testing Centre, on the second floor of the Beijing Academy of Agriculture and Forestry Sciences building, has the largest corn DNA fingerprint database in the world, with echoing sounds of technicians stripping Jingkenuo 868 corn kernels.
Corn’s DNA print could be called its “molecular ID card.” As Yi Hongmei, a Corn Seed Testing Centre technician, puts it, “The ‘molecular ID of corn uses DNA fingerprint technology to study the corn’s genes and distinguish the special gene fragments of each variety.”
Under Zhao’s guidance, the team members have made efforts to collect corn DNA data for more than 20 years, so that the huge data bank is now home to more than 10,000 matches from various provinces and countries, more than 2,000 varieties with rights protection, more than 3,500 varieties with approval from the Ministry of Agriculture, and more than 1,000 farm developed resources, with at least 26,000 corn “molecular ID cards” in the database.
What are these “molecular ID cards” for? One answer is that they’re able to guarantee security of genuine food. There are more than 5,000 hybrid corn varieties with a national- or provincelevel approval and thousands of varieties that have been used for trials at different levels, not to mention those applying for new variety protection.
Corn’s genetic differences are so subtle that the naked eye can’t see their shape and character, so counterfeit or substandard varieties are considered a risk in the seed industry. In the circulation process, seed enterprise rights protection and the seed market face increasing challenges.
Corn's DNA fingerprint ID technology resembles a paternity test and can easily distinguish each corn variety on a molecular level.
In the Corn Seed Testing Centre’s laboratory, technicians sample the corn’s DNA, examine gene fragments, and compare information instantly to identify the seeds. Commenting on this, Zhao says, “In the past, annual sampling took three to six months to get test results. The DNA
fingerprint database now allows us to do the tests and get results on the same day.” Detection is quick and simple.
Yi, a technician, goes on to explain, “A human DNA comparison needs only 16 loci, whereas the corn DNA comparison needs 40,” for comparison in the computer. The test takes only minutes for the machine to identify. Yi adds, “To avoid any identification error, the test is done simultaneously by two groups of technicians and if the results of both groups are consistent, they use follow-up measures to ensure that the results are 100 percent accurate.”
The database system connected to the Internet is recognised by the Ministry of Agriculture and the High Court. The Corn Research Centre has also come up with eight DNA fingerprints to standardise the molecular detection of corn. China has also established a Hybrid Rice DNA Fingerprint Database, and is working on DNA databases for wheat, soybeans, cotton and other crops, and participation in formulating standards involving worldwide technology.
This form of validation provides technical support for variety protection, for its distinction, uniformity, stability (DUS) test, law enforcement and farmer rights protection, and can identify more than 50,000 samples. A big data crop variety DNA fingerprint base in China is gradually taking shape to make it possible to identify crop varieties, accumulate data, protect resources, circulate materials, share trade results, trace seed origins, and innovate a more fair market environment.
Zhao has some interesting perspectives on Beijing building a national scientific innovation centre with a precise economic structure. “In agricultural science and technology, the state can solicit views of technicians across a wide range before undertaking major projects and measures. We technicians also take an active part in the decisionmaking process and give advice and suggestions to make full use of the capital’s think tank,” Zhao says.
Zhao says that Beijing has a wealth of think tanks, especially in science and technology innovation and institutions with experts to support decision-making of the municipal government.
Golden Fields of Wheat
To the west of the Beijing Academy of Agriculture and Forestry Sciences there are fields full of golden wheat, with heads full of plump grain. Here, in contrast with more general wheat
fields, the tops have white paper covers, with some bearing a white note and serial number. During the Grain in the Ear solar term, Zhao Changping, an Academy of Agriculture and Forestry Sciences expert who oversees wheat fields, runs about all over China surveying wheat fields.
Zhao commented on China’s wheat deal with Pakistan and said,
“This was the world’s first hybrid wheat variety promoted in a foreign country, achieving commercialisation.” He was referring to the 2014 Beijing World Seed Congress, where Beijing seed companies signed 15 million in US dollars worth of contracts, news of which caused a sensation in Beijing.
One agreement, the China and Pakistan Hybrid Wheat Industrialisation Cooperation Agreement, between CNSGC Hybrid Wheat Seed (Beijing) and Pakistan Guard Agricultural Research Services (Pvt.) indicated that China’s hybrid wheat would be planted in Pakistan. That wheat going to Pakistan was Jingmai No. 7, a Beijing Academy of Agriculture and Forestry Sciences development, led by Zhao, the wheat expert. That hybrid wheat variety has increased local crop output in Pakistan by more than a third.
How to make the most out of hybrid wheat has been a worldwide challenge and the first issue to deal with in increasing wheat's productive capacity. It is at the core of the international seed industry competition. Zhao and his team cultivated a high-yield wheat with great resistance and quality to overcome a technical problem that puzzled scientists around the globe for 60 years, and their Jingmai No. 7 was another significant result of China’s crop science work, apart from the hybrid rice. It came thanks to the team’s years of arduous effort, resulting in high yields.
One rainy morning over 20 years ago, Zhao Changping made his way out to a muddy wheat field in Hunan Province to observe the test plot and stumbled upon a sterile male plant, then a second, and third. Zhao, always passionate about increasing wheat yields, got excited after going on to find dozens of these sterile wheat plants and began running around the fields despite the rain.
China’s breakthroughs in the 1990s utilised hybrid wheat after a discovery of photo- thermo- sensitive sterile male wheat. At that time, there was successful hybrids of crops such as corn, rice and oilseed rape, but because of the complexity of wheat genes, the hybrid wheat seed business
It took Zhao and the team 20 years of hard work to overcome difficulties, including seed selection of the photothermo-sensitive sterile line, large-scale, efficient seed production, better hybrid creation and applications, but they did succeed in creating hybrid wheat combinations that were able to increase output by 20 percent or more.
Moving on from there, they also took the lead in China’s original hightech result—the Ii-line Hybrid Wheat Technology System, blazing new paths for hybrid wheat usages, while their R&D level and application speed put China’s hybrid wheat research at the world's top.
That high- quality hybrid wheat variety, based on technology and research, gave the resulting products a worldwide reputation and attracted many countries and multinational companies looking to cooperate.
As a result, in spring of 2015, Zhao Changping felt the enthusiasm of local farmers at a meeting for wheat seeds in Lahore, Pakistan. In recalling the moment, Zhao says, “We had a demonstration field there and it happened to be wheat harvest time, so many local farmers were competing to purchase our seeds after seeing the demonstration field.”
Much land in Pakistan is barren or deserted, but China’s hybrid wheat was welcome because of its high yields, drought resistance and barrenground adaptability. In fact, supplies of the high- quality hybrid wheat variety used in local traditional foods was hardly enough to meet demand. Zhao goes on to explain, “Compared with traditional local wheat varieties, our hybrid wheat could increase outputs by 30 percent on average
while cutting irrigation in half.”
Small wonder that the highquality Jingmai series hybrid wheat had such bright market prospects and, by now has been planted in Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. Pakistan also has nearly 200 Jingmai hybrid wheat planting demonstration sites, making it the core of an international hybrid wheat network, and the beginning of its commercialisation.
These high-yield and water-saving hybrid wheat varieties have also been planted in Uzbekistan, India and the Netherlands, with satisfactory results helping to establish a hybrid wheat demonstration network. Hybrid wheat is a sign of Beijing's seed business “going global” and represents its superior quality, a major part of the Belt and Road, leading prosperity in the industry.
It is not only these traditional staple foods that are taking centre stage, as China introduces many fruits and vegetables through its Belt and Road effort, including cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers, cabbage and cauliflower that have helped China deal with its vegetable deficiencies.
Hundreds of years may have passed since camels were seen on the Silk Road, but there is still long-term cooperation and communication between civilisations, along with shared development, and absorbing of new elements. In the midst of all this, what provides scientific and technological support for Beijing’s vegetable basket project is the Beijing Academy of Agriculture and Forestry Sciences, a leading force in vegetable seed production and research.
In this effort, Jingxin 2 has become a top producing area for Chinese watermelons, with a market share of more than 60 percent, while Jingqiu 3 is one of the major Chinese cabbage varieties, transported from North to South China, and the only vegetable variety with the planting area of more 666,000 hectares in China. Meanwhile, the Jinghulu series of zucchini has put an end to the long-term monopoly of foreign companies in China’s zucchini market, and dried peppers have become China’s first hybrid export of dried pepper varieties.
When the operation of these small seeds are taken together, the Beijing Academy of Agriculture and Forestry Sciences has been a pioneer, leading the capital’s agriculture along the Belt and Road. Its high- quality vegetables are now recognised in many foreign countries, with cucumber seeds for Russia, rape seeds for Malaysia, watermelon seeds for Egypt, and Chinese cabbage seeds and other high quality vegetable seeds for the US, Japan, Pakistan, Malaysia, Kenya and 13 other countries in recent years.
With these Chinese seeds planted, agricultural services are available simultaneously. For example, greenhouse control devices, irrigation controls, agricultural remote sensing technologies, agricultural expert development platforms and other devices have been exported to Israel, Canada, the UK and Vietnam, since 2004. In addition, there is long-term technical support available via mail, telephone, video conferencing, and Wechat.
The Beijing Academy of Agriculture and Forestry Sciences Vegetable Centre also cooperates with South Africa in developing pellet seed technology. This involves wrapping a special material around small seeds to increase their volume and facilitate mechanised sowing while saving seeds and water.
In a related story, the Beijing Academy of Agriculture and Forestry Sciences has been holding international symposiums on smart agriculture since 2010, and now has experts from more than 20 countries along the Belt and Road taking part.
In summary, Gao Hua, Communist Party secretary of the Beijing Academy of Agriculture and Forestry Sciences, said, “As the capital’s major agricultural and forestry research institute, the Beijing Academy of Agriculture and Forestry Sciences shoulders responsibility in supporting agriculture along the Belt and Road area. We plan to make full use of our agricultural research advantages, integrate resources, and contribute even more to the Belt and Road.”
As Beijing continues developing its national scientific and technological innovation centre and international exchange centre, there's no doubt that scientific and technological innovation will play a major force behind Beijing’s agricultural reforms and development. In the future, more top-quality products and technology will be seen along the Belt and Road region.
Jingkenuo 2000, a breed of corn grown by the Beijing Academy of Agriculture and Forestry Sciences
A cornfield of the Jingkenuo 2000 breed
Jingkenuo 2000 has become popular in Southeast Asia.
Extracting DNA from corn samples
Analysing DNA fingerprints from various strains of corn
A hybrid of wheat bred by the Beijing Academy of Agriculture and Forestry Sciences
A hybrid of wheat in an experimental field