Cou­pled Ecol­ogy and Agriculture Re­vived on Arid Land – Achieve­ments of Agri­cul­tural Ecosys­tem and Evo­lu­tion Re­search Team of Lanzhou Univer­sity, China

– Achieve­ments of Agri­cul­tural Ecosys­tem and Evo­lu­tion Re­search Team of Lanzhou Univer­sity, China


In north­west China, which fea­tures drought, de­ser­ti­fi­ca­tion and scant veg­e­ta­tion, it is a real chal­lenge for re­searchers to pro­mote sus­tain­able de­vel­op­ment while si­mul­ta­ne­ously in­creas­ing farm­ers’ in­come.

THE Yel­low River flows across Lanzhou city, Gansu Prov­ince in north­west China. One does not re­al­ize China’s vast­ness un­less vis­it­ing in per­son the coun­try’s north­west. Here the land is im­mense. How­ever, drought, de­ser­ti­fi­ca­tion, scant veg­e­ta­tion, wa­ter and soil ero­sion have re­sulted in low agri­cul­tural pro­duc­tiv­ity and huge ecosys­tem cri- ses. Mak­ing eco­log­i­cal progress and car­ry­ing out sus­tain­able de­vel­op­ment in this re­gion, there­fore, be­comes a con­sid­er­able chal­lenge. Cov­er­ing a large area, north­west­ern China plays an im­por­tant part in the na­tional strate­gies of pro­mot­ing agri­cul­tural and eco­log­i­cal progress through ap­pli­ca­tion of sci­en­tific and tech­no­log­i­cal ad­vances. In this case, pro­mot­ing agri­cul­tural pro­duc­tiv­ity and ecosys­tem con­ser­va­tion take pri­or­ity in the three agriculture- re­lated is­sues of agriculture, farm­ers, and ru­ral ar­eas.

“The en­vi­ron­ment in North­west China is ex­tremely frag­ile. Eco­log­i­cal aware­ness must be raised at both the na­tional and re­gional lev­els,” Xiong You­cai, pro­fes­sor at the School of Life Sciences of Lanzhou Univer­sity, said. “Faced with sharp con­tra­dic­tions be­tween hu­mans and na­ture, a reg­i­men of ‘pro­mot­ing eco­log­i­cal ad­vance­ment over a large re­gion while boost­ing pro­duc­tion

in small ar­eas’ should be in place. This will achieve sus­tain­able de­vel­op­ment of a cou­pled ecosys­tem, econ­omy, and so­ci­ety through fa­cil­i­tat­ing co­or­di­nated de­vel­op­ment of agriculture and an­i­mal hus­bandry, and pay­ing equal at­ten­tion to con­vert­ing farm­lands into forests or grass­lands, while si­mul­ta­ne­ously in­creas­ing farm­ers’ in­come,” he added.

Agro-ecol­ogy Re­search on the Banks of the Yel­low River

The agri­cul­tural ecosys­tem and evo­lu­tion re­search team, headed by Pro­fes­sor Xiong You­cai, orig­i­nates in Lanzhou Univer­sity’s prom­i­nent ecol­ogy pro­gram. Six­teen years ago, Xiong left his pic­turesque home­town in Hubei Prov­ince for des­o­late Gansu, where nat­u­ral con­di­tions are en­tirely dif­fer­ent. Pro­fes­sor Xiong ex­plained in lay terms his re­search field.

Cov­er­ing an area of over 640,000 sq kilo­me­ters, the Loess Plateau in North­west China is re­garded as an ecosys­tem con­ser­va­tion area in­ca­pable of with­stand­ing in­tense hu­man ac­tiv­i­ties, and not suit­able for large scale agri­cul­tural pro­duc­tion. Nev­er­the­less, the fun­da­men­tal ne­ces­sity of nour­ish­ing and pro­vid­ing de­vel­op­ment op­por­tu­ni­ties for the 34 mil­lion peo­ple liv­ing on the plateau re­mains an un­avoid­able re­al­ity. Im­prov­ing farm­ers’ liveli­hoods and at the same time restor­ing lo­cal ecosys­tem on this bleak yet com­par­a­tively densely pop­u­lated land is a sci­en­tific co­nun­drum.

With the aim of rec­on­cil­ing con­tra­dic­tions be­tween pro­duc­tion and ecol­ogy and seek­ing a sus­tain­able de­vel­op­ment mode, Pro­fes­sor Xiong leads his team’s search for a bet­ter way to “pro­mote eco­log­i­cal ad­vance­ment over a large re­gion while boost­ing pro­duc­tion in smaller ar­eas.” This idea, when ap­plied to the hilly-gully re­gions of the Loess Plateau, can be put into prac­tice by trans­fer­ring agri­cul­tural pro­duc­tion from frag­ile ar­eas like hill­sides and table­lands to plains and foothills. In other words, in­ten­si­fied agriculture is car­ried out in plain fields, and ecosys­tem con­ser­va­tion in en­vi­ron­men­tally frag­ile ar­eas.

Pro­fes­sor Xiong im­presses on his post­grad­u­ate stu­dents that sci­en­tific re­search is built on previous dis­cov­er­ies and con­tri­bu­tions in the course of work by sci­en­tists from one gen­er­a­tion to an- other. Since the 1980s, sci­en­tists in Lanzhou Univer­sity have been con­duct­ing the re­searches on rain­wa­ter-har­vest­ing agri­cul­tural sys­tems and eco­log­i­cal restora­tion pro­grams that con­trib­ute to al­le­vi­at­ing the food se­cu­rity is­sue.

Upon hear­ing Lanzhou Univer­sity Pro­fes­sor Zhao Songling’s report in 1995, then Chi­nese Premier Li Peng pointed out that rain­wa­ter har­vest­ing was the ideal so­lu­tion to agri­cul­tural prob­lems in semi- arid ar­eas. Later, in 1999, an ad­vi­sory report compiled by Lanzhou Univer­sity and Chi­nese Academy of Sciences was sub­mit­ted to the State Coun­cil. It showed that four tech­nolo­gies, in­clud­ing rain-har­vest­ing and wa­ter-sav­ing, gully and slope gov- er­nance, sus­tain­able agriculture, and dry- lot feed­ing, are key el­e­ments to sus­tain­ably de­vel­op­ing agriculture on the Loess Plateau. In 2002, Pro­fes­sor Li Feng­min for­mu­lated the eco­log­i­cal rain­wa­ter har­vest­ing the­ory in which en­vi­ron­ment- friendly man­age­ment con­cepts are in­te­grated.

Xiong You­cai told his stu­dents: “It is the ef­fort made by gen­er­a­tions upon gen­er­a­tions in agri­cul­tural rain­wa­ter har­vest­ing re­searches that has helped farm­ers and herds­men in north­west­ern China solve food se­cu­rity prob­lems. For in­stance, there are now 15 mil­lion hectares of corn plant­ing ar­eas in Gansu Prov­ince, so hugely ben­e­fit­ing neigh­bor­ing Shaanxi Prov­ince, and crop pro­duc­tion has stim­u­lated the ex­ten­sion of an­i­mal hus­bandry in­dus­try chain.”

Nev­er­the­less, there is still room for im­prove­ment in the cur­rent the­ory of agri­cul­tural rain­wa­ter har­vest­ing. Such prob­lems as plas­tic film residue, de­cline of field pro­duc­tiv­ity, un­der-uti­liza­tion of rain­fall in­fil­tra­tion in grow­ing sea­sons, re­duced soil mois­ture stor­age ca­pac­ity, im­bal­ances in the soil of car­bon, ni­tro­gen, and phos­pho­rus, and re­duced in­comes de­spite farm­ers’ ris­ing out­put all de­mand prompt so­lu­tions. They ne­ces­si­tate break­throughs and in­no­va­tions in ba­sic the­o­ries and tech­nolo­gies, and stud­ies that com­bine nat­u­ral with so­cial fac­tors.

Pro­fes­sor Xiong’s team has been fo­cus­ing on these prob­lems. The tech­nique the team re­cently de­vel­oped of ridge­sow­ing and al­ter­na­tive fur­row-mulching raises the on-site rain­fall in­fil­tra­tion ef­fi­ciency in grow­ing sea­sons and in­creases the ca­pac­ity of soil mois­ture stor­age, and

also the car­bon ni­tro­gen ra­tio. It is now be­ing pro­moted among lo­cal farm­ers.

Pro­fes­sor Xiong be­lieves that Dar­win’s the­ory of evo­lu­tion leads the way to agri­cul­tural de­vel­op­ment in North­west China. He takes the farm­ing mode in ac­cor­dance with pre­cip­i­ta­tion rhythm as an ex­am­ple. To re­lieve the dis­crep­ancy be­tween nat­u­ral rain­fall and crop wa­ter de­mand at dif­fer­ent sea­sons, he sug­gests re­duc­ing spring- sown crops and in­stead, in­creas­ing sum­mer-sown crops, like corn and pota­toes. Aca­demic cir­cles, how­ever, have long deemed this method in­fea­si­ble. But prac­tice has proven that chang­ing the types of crops achieves the re­quired lev­els of thermo and rain match­ing over the same pe­riod, so ex­pand­ing the ap­pli­ca­tion scope of mi­cro-field rain­wa­ter har­vest­ing in larger re­gions. This is help­ful in trans­fer­ring hu­man ac­tiv­i­ties from broad, en­vi­ron­men­tally frag­ile ar­eas to small plots of val­ley land and plain fields. Pro­duc­tion and con­se­quently in­comes are there­fore ex­pected to in­crease, and eco­log­i­cal restora­tion in large ar­eas en­hanced ac­cord­ingly. An in­no­va­tive ap­pli­ca­tion of Dar­win’s the­ory, the mode of rain-match­ing farm­ing has been en­riched and fur­ther de­vel­oped.

Hu­man Ben­e­fits from Sci­en­tific Re­search

Pro­fes­sor Xiong and his col­leagues ad­here to the spirit of hands- on re­search. “I come to the univer­sity’s field ex­per­i­men­tal sta­tion once or twice a week,” one of Xiong You­cai’s stu­dents said. “It’s an ideal place for sci­en­tific re­search. Here, with the pro­fes­sor’s guid­ance, we study, prac­tice, and tem­per our willpower.”

Zhonglianchuan Vil­lage, where the field sta­tion is lo­cated, has ex­tremely lim­ited ac­cess to wa­ter and elec­tric­ity. All team mem­bers must rely on a few wa­ter cel­lars. De­spite poor con­di­tions, the pro­fes­sor and his stu­dents pa­tiently toil over their re­search. Slop­ing fields cov­er­ing an area of 80 mu (5.3 hectares) and ter­raced fields pro­vide them with typ­i­cal sam­ples.

“The vil­lage has 120 house­holds,” a vil­lager said. “All our corn fields are now cov­ered with mulch. In the past, the out­put was around 150 to 200 kilo­grams per mu (0.0667 hectares) un­der tradi- tional flat plant­ing mode. Now it could reach 500 kilo­grams per mu. My fam­ily of four has 20 mu (1.3 hectares) of corn­fields. As the out­put has now in­creased to 500 kilo­grams per mu, we can live on a plan­ta­tion that gen­er­ates an in­come of more than RMB 20,000.”

It is im­por­tant in dry ar­eas to up­grade the tech­niques of wa­ter re­ten­tion, evap­o­ra­tion in­hi­bi­tion, and rain­wa­ter col­lec­tion. The ridge-fur­row plas­tic-mulching tech­nique is cru­cial in this re­gard. Ac­cord­ing to Pro­fes­sor Xiong, the mech­a­nism of this tech­nique to in­crease yield is mainly geared to im­prov­ing wa­ter and tem­per­a­ture con­di­tions. Putting mulch on dry top­soil ef­fec­tively re­tains and uti­lizes wa­ter. Air­tight mulch pre­vents ver­ti­cal wa­ter evap­o­ra­tion and di­rects it in a more lat­eral flow. The re­ten­tion of wa­ter in soil more ef­fec­tively co­or­di­nates the wa­ter de­mands of crop growth and makes bet­ter use of deep soil wa­ter.

The Zhao fam­ily in the vil­lage com­prises five mem­bers. The head of the house­hold said: “We never grew corn be­fore be­cause of wa­ter short­ages and cold weather. It was not un­til 1996, when the ex­per­i­men­tal plant­ing suc­ceeded, that vil­lagers be­gan to plant corn us­ing the tech­nique of ridge- fur­row mulching.” He went on, “Now my fields yield 350 kilo­grams per mu. Cov­er­ing an area of three mu (0.2 hectares), the corn I plant gen­er­ates an in­come of over RMB 2,000, which was un­be­liev­able in the past.”

Baishigou in Yuzhong County of Lanzhou is a na­tional key demon­stra­tion base for dry­land agriculture. Corn grows par­tic­u­larly well here in its fields. “Look, ripe corn has turned the hills golden,” Pro­fes­sor Xiong said to one of his Kenyan stu­dents. All corn in this re­gion is planted us­ing the mi­cro-field rain-har­vest­ing tech­nique. Ad­just­ment of plant­ing struc­ture and ex­ten­sion of farm­ing tech­nolo­gies have boosted both the pe­runit yield and farm­ers’ in­comes.

Shuan­g­long­gou Vil­lage also ben­e­fits from this tech­nique. “Our vil­lage has the largest area of corn fields, and they are all cov­ered with agri­cul­tural films ac­cord­ing to the tech­nique we learnt from Pro­fes­sor Xiong’s team. In this way, thermo and mois­ture in the soil are well pre­served,” one of the lo­cals ex­plained. Vil­lagers are de­lighted at the rise in corn yield from 170 kilo­grams per mu to 600

kilo­grams per mu. “Thanks to this tech­nol­ogy, we have a sta­ble net in­come of more than RMB 1,000 on a mu ba­sis. Pro­fes­sor Xiong and his stu­dents visit our vil­lage three or four times a year to teach us plant­ing tech­niques,” a vil­lager said.

How­ever it was dif­fi­cult for peo­ple to ac­cept these new sci­en­tific achieve­ments. At first farm­ers re­fused to buy into the mulching idea, and some agri­cul­tural ex­perts thought Pro­fes­sor Xiong’s team had worked in vain. “But we didn’t give up con­duct­ing ex­per­i­ments and trial plant­ings, and even­tu­ally suc­ceeded in rais­ing the corn yield by more than seven-fold,” Pro­fes­sor Xiong said. “Our re­search out­puts have ben­e­fited farm­ers in re­gions where corn was sel­dom planted due to un­fa­vor­able nat­u­ral con­di­tions. To­day, the higher corn yield has brought farm­ers tan­gi­ble prof­its. We are grat­i­fied to have made the im­pos­si­ble pos­si­ble,” the pro­fes­sor said.

Dingxi in cen­tral Gansu Prov­ince is one of the coun­try’s most arid re­gions. In the Dingxi Academy of Agri­cul­tural Sciences green­houses, potato seedlings and those of other crops nur­tured through ridge- fur­row mulching are trans­ported to the fields of thou­sands of farm­ers. Dingxi’s de­vel­op­ment was for­merly in­hib­ited by its un­fa­vor­able nat­u­ral con­di­tions. But in re­cent years, the city’s Academy of Agri­cul­tural Sciences has co­op­er­ated with re­search groups from Lanzhou Univer­sity, which has brought re­mark­able achieve­ments in sci­en­tific stud­ies, ed­u­ca­tion, prac­tice, and tal­ents train­ing.

Help for Africa

Sci­en­tific re­search should join the global flow. Over past five years, Pro­fes­sor Xiong has led his team to Kenya to launch jointly with the United Na­tions En­vi­ron­ment Pro­gramme ( UNEP) a project in the field of agri­cul­tural rain­wa­ter-sav­ing on arid land. In Kenya, the team was men­aced with the threats of ter­ror­ist at­tacks and kid­nap­pings, wa­ter and power short­ages, rugged roads and poor trans­porta­tion, strong ul­tra­vi­o­let ra­di­a­tion, and other haz­ards. But team mem­bers over­came these dif­fi­cul­ties and even­tu­ally pro­duced sat­is­fac­tory re­sults.

The first stage of their tri­als took place in the Ka­tu­mani re­gion, where the team com­pared dif­fer­ent meth­ods of mi­cro-field rain-har­vest­ing and dif­fer­ent types of crops. It also held demon­stra­tions of var­i­ous tech­niques for lo­cal farm­ers. Ex­per­i­ments were car­ried out in 98 quadrats cov­er­ing an area of 4,500 sq me­ters. It has since been es­tab­lished that the per-unit yield in the re­gion sky­rock­eted 90 to 500 per­cent and wa­ter use ef­fi­ciency to 150 to 780 per­cent.

Demon­stra­tions were later held and farmer train­ing schools set up in Ka­tu­mani, Ki­tui, and Juja. More­over, af­ter cal­cu­la­tions and analy­ses of soil in var­i­ous ar­eas, along with cli­mate pa­ram­e­ters, Chi­nese re­searchers put for­ward their aca­demic view that although arid and semi-arid re­gions take up more than 80 per­cent of Kenya’s land, it is pos­si­ble to pro­duce suf­fi­cient food to feed all Kenyans from just one third of the na­tion’s arable land. This can be achieved by adopt­ing ad­vanced meth­ods that have been suc­cess­ful in China, such as mi­crofield rain-har­vest­ing and crop man­age­ment sys­tems.

This out­come, which is of in­es­timable value in al­le­vi­at­ing food crises in Africa, re­ceived high com­men­da­tion from ex­perts at UNEP, South East­ern Kenya Univer­sity, Kenya Agri­cul­tural Re­search In­sti­tute, and Jomo Keny­atta Univer­sity of Agriculture and Tech­nol­ogy. Pro­fes­sor Ti­tus Kanui from South East­ern Kenya Univer­sity said: “Your ex­per­i­men­ta­tion and tech­nol­ogy will make a sig­nif­i­cant con­tri­bu­tion to Kenya’s food se­cu­rity.”

Re­search by Pro­fes­sor Xiong’s team has also drawn me­dia at­ten­tion in China and from abroad, as well as from the In­ter­na­tional Dry­land De­vel­op­ment Com­mis­sion, the In­ter­na­tional Cen­ter for Agri­cul­tural Re­search in Dry Ar­eas, and var­i­ous en­ter­prises, non- govern­ment or­ga­ni­za­tions, and farm­ers’ as­so­ci­a­tions in Kenya.

Ac­cord­ing to Pro­fes­sor Zhou Xuhong, Chi­nese Academy of En­gi­neer­ing aca­demi­cian and former pres­i­dent of Lanzhou Univer­sity ( LZU), the LZU is en­cour­aged to en­hance co­op­er­a­tion and ex­changes with univer­si­ties and re­search in­sti­tu­tions in Africa in the course of mak­ing it­self a world fa­mous univer­sity. Re­search on arid and cold re­gions con­sti­tutes im­por­tant pro­grams at LZU. In most parts of Africa, drought is an in­her­ent ge­o­graph­i­cal and cli­matic fea­ture. Hence, the re­search, pro­grams and ta­lent train­ings held in LZU in this field have much to share with African schools. Through demon­stra­tion and de­vel­op­ment of rain­fed agriculture in arid re­gions, China’s suc­cess­ful ex­pe­ri­ence has been in­tro­duced to Africa, so contributing to al­le­vi­at­ing food crises and tack­ling global changes.

Pro­fes­sor Xiong (mid­dle) dis­plays the progress of rain­fed maize field in Yuzhong County, Gansu, China, to Pro­fes­sor Muham­mad Ashraf, cur­rent chair­man of Pak­istan Sci­ence Foun­da­tion & Fel­low of Third World Academy of Sci­ence, and Pro­fes­sor Ro­manus...

Pro­fes­sor Xiong (third left) works with his re­search team on an ecosys­tem restora­tion site of Beis­han Field Ex­per­i­men­tal Sta­tion of Dry­land Agro-ecol­ogy, Lanzhou Univer­sity, China in Au­gust 2015.

Pro­fes­sor Xiong (sec­ond left) presents the ad­vances of rain­fed agriculture in Kenya to Pro­fes­sor Zhou Xuhong (first right), former pres­i­dent of LZU and cur­rent CAE aca­demi­cian, in Jan­uary 2013.

Group photo of Pro­fes­sor Xiong and some of his team mem­bers.

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