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【中国日报】Sowing expertise to reap food security

核心提示: HZAU, an institution with a 125-year history, has been nurturing generations of students who have gone on to bear the weighty responsibility of advancing China's agricultural development, ensuring an ever-increasing variety of food for the population.


By Xing Wen | China Daily | Updated: 2023-04-19 07:29

The ability of China to feed nearly 20 percent of the world's population with less than 9 percent of the world's arable land is truly a remarkable feat and testament to the tireless efforts and unwavering dedication of generations of agricultural scientists who have toiled in the fields.

Huazhong Agricultural University, an institution with a nearly 125-year history, has been nurturing generations of students who have gone on to bear the weighty responsibility of advancing China's agricultural development, ensuring an ever-increasing variety of food for the population.

University President Li Zhaohu shares his personal academic journey as an agriculture enthusiast and how it has shaped his educational philosophy. In 1983, Li enrolled in the China Agricultural University and became the first ever university student from his neighborhood, a small place in the Inner Mongolia autonomous region. "Up until then, I had never even laid eyes on a television set and lacked knowledge about the outside world. I had no idea what to study," Li recalls.

Nevertheless, during his college years, he discovered a deep interest in agriculture and gained a greater appreciation for the importance of science in the field. "As someone who grew up in a rural area, I felt a strong desire to transform my underdeveloped hometown and make a positive impact on China's rural development," he says.

To pursue these goals, Li remained dedicated to his studies throughout his university years and eventually earned acceptance into a postgraduate program in 1987.While many of his peers still slept in the mornings, he would rise early to tune in to English news via a semiconductor radio. In instances where the dormitory supervisor had yet to awaken, he would use the illumination from the streetlights outside his room's window to study.

The idea of learning agricultural science to advance rural development has inspired him to become an advocate for younger generations of students to align their research goals with the strategic needs of the country. "Integrating their scientific pursuits with the current era's context is crucial," he says.

Currently, Huazhong Agricultural University has made noteworthy strides in research fields including hybrid rapeseed, organic rice, high-quality pig breeds, and animal vaccines. These achievements have played a significant role in safeguarding China's national food security.

For instance, the Hubei Hongshan Laboratory, initiated by the university, is an amalgamation of six national key laboratories, five innovation research groups supported by the National Natural Science Foundation of China, and eight distinguished academicians.

The laboratory has been actively collaborating with domestic and international research institutions to address pivotal technologies in artificial breeding, in service of national strategic demands.

Li also highlights that it's crucial for researchers in agricultural technology to have a strong connection with local communities.

During his internship in the senior year of university, he lived with a farming family in Hebei province for three months, helping them harvest wheat and conducting experiments and research in their test fields.

"This experience was precious to me, and I still maintain a close relationship with them today, almost like my own family," he says. "I believe that, for us, it is only through such connections with farmers that we can be motivated and inspired to work passionately."

Through technological innovation, the farming family gradually built up a large-scale cotton-planting enterprise.

Huazhong Agricultural University has also been pioneering an approach that involves merging the cultivation of talent and scientific research for the betterment of agriculture, rural areas and farmers.

Over the past two years, more than 600 teachers and over 3,000 students from the university have voluntarily connected with 17 cities and prefectures in Hubei, leveraging their scientific and educational strengths to carry out activities including technological services, talent training, theoretical lectures and thematic investigations, supporting the high-quality development of agriculture in rural areas in Hubei.

As China's agricultural landscape continues to evolve, the country has increasingly turned to fueling international agricultural cooperation and promoting food security.

Li, who sought further education in the United States in the 1990s, stressed the importance of international exchanges in agricultural science.

During Li's university years, China was in the initial period after it carried out its reform and opening-up policy in 1978, and had just started to participate in international exchanges.

One day, while attending an academic presentation, a professor, who had recently returned from a visit to the US, delivered a lecture on biotechnology and cloning. As the professor presented various photos, Li was struck by how much biotechnology could transform agricultural development.

"Seeing these things from the outside world that I had never imagined before was truly astonishing. This experience inspired me to pursue further education abroad, with the goal of contributing to the rejuvenation of my homeland," Li says.

In 1995, he started to pursue his doctoral degree in Auburn University, Alabama, and four years later initiated his postdoctoral studies in North Dakota State University. Of his experiences there, Li adds, "Studying abroad has had a profound impact on me, promoting the formation of ideas through exposure to different environments and cultures."

Over the past five years, Huazhong Agricultural University has invited five Nobel laureates to deliver lectures, organized 128 international academic conferences, and sent 2,384 students abroad on educational exchanges.

In December, the university co-organized the Global Food Security Forum for Young Scientists, aiming at bringing together scientists, scholars and innovators from different academic areas to discuss their research findings and exchange innovative ideas on all aspects of global food security.

According to Li, the most difficult task is undoubtedly cultivating talent, as it ultimately determines the institution's future. "Our goal is to train innovative talent who can thrive in different stages of China's agricultural development," he says.

Intelligent agriculture is said to be an inevitable trend in the modernization of agriculture. It is also a field that Li's university has been exploring to cultivate more talent.

In 2020, Huazhong Agricultural University established the first undergraduate program in intelligent agriculture in China, which involves interdisciplinary knowledge and combines diverse areas such as information technology, big data, cloud computing, and the Internet of Things with traditional agricultural science education.

Li Tianhuan, 23, is among the university's first group of intelligent agriculture majors.

In 2019, then a freshman in the university's college of fisheries, Li Tianhuan by chance stumbled upon a poster in the campus advertising the first round of enrollments for the intelligent agriculture program, which piqued his interest.

He then attended the program's recruitment presentation during which he was particularly drawn to the program's promises of interdisciplinary knowledge, cross-campus collaboration and diverse research directions.

"I'd heard that interdisciplinary education is the future trend. And this program is designed to cultivate talent with a wide range of knowledge backgrounds by leveraging the educational resources of multiple colleges. I was excited to try it out," Li Tianhuan says.

The one-on-one mentorship and early exposure to scientific research, including an opportunity to participate in a research project upon entering his sophomore year, have contributed to his rapid growth as a student. "I believe that a deep understanding and hands-on experience are necessary to truly cultivate one's interest," he says.

Liu Kun contributed to this story.

本文原载《中国日报》2023年4月19日第16版 点击阅读原文

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