Sino-US collaboration on crucial agriculture

Photo taken on March 18, 2020 shows a factory of US-based agriculture and food company Cargill in Pinghu, East China’s Zhejiang province. [Photo/Xinhua]

Agriculture is a major industry in the United States, with agriculture and food related industries contributing around 5 percent of the US’ gross domestic product.

In China, agriculture generated 7.3 percent of the nation’s GDP in 2021. Each year, the Chinese government’s “No 1 central document” sets forth the blueprint for the nation’s agricultural agenda, echoing one of the timeless Chinese sayings: “Food is the first and foremost sustainability in people’s lives.”

After the normalization of US-China relations following the visit by former US president Richard Nixon to China in 1972, and particularly since China’s economic reforms initiated in 1978, agriculture has been among the most active areas for exchanges and collaboration between the two countries.

The US state of Iowa leads the nation in corn, pork and egg production, making it one of the most visited states for international agriculturalists.

Working in Iowa agriculture for over three decades, I have had opportunities to meet many Chinese agriculturalists, among them former minister of agriculture and World Food Prize laureate He Kang.

I had the honor to host him and his wife at my Iowa home and I visited their home in Beijing many times. His stories of the early days of reform were fascinating and heartwarming. He led delegations of agricultural experts to visit the US and learn about our advanced agricultural research and production systems.

In 2012, the visit to Iowa by then Chinese vice-president Xi Jinping was a major event in the state. Then Iowa governor Terry Branstad recounted Xi’s visit to Iowa in 1985, when Xi, now China’s president and general secretary of the Communist Party of China Central Committee, was secretary of the CPC Zhengding County Committee in Hebei province. That year, Branstad was in his first term and had successfully launched the sister-state relationship between Iowa and Hebei, broadening the scope for collaboration.

The story of Xi’s visits to Iowa has been shared many times with beautiful writing, such as in Branstad’s biography, which was translated into Chinese. What impressed me most remains Branstad’s description of Xi’s focus on learning about Iowa agriculture, to the point that he stayed with a rural Iowa family during his first visit from him.

TC Tso, a leading US Department of Agriculture tobacco scientist, was one of the friends with whom He, the former minister of agriculture, stayed during his visits. Tso worked tirelessly to promote collaboration between the two nations. After his retirement from the USDA in 1983, he devoted a tremendous amount of time and energy to facilitating dialogue between the US and Chinese agricultural communities. Among the US scientists involved in the China visits was Arnel Hallauer, a renowned corn breeder at Iowa State University whose book was dubbed “the bible of corn breeding” by graduate students.

Among Tso’s many awards, he has received US Senior Executive Service Awards from former US presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. In 2005, he was inducted into the USDA Agricultural Research Service Hall of Fame. From the long list of projects he steered, one can appreciate the scope of his impact through his books titled Agriculture in China 1949-2030 and Vision of 2050 Agriculture in China.

Tso brought noted US agronomist Norman Borlaug to visit China multiple times. Tso’s introduction of Borlaug probably best explains why agriculturalists from different countries willingly put aside their differences and work together´╝Źit is their “dedication to the dream of a world free from hunger.”

I once asked He why he chose agriculture when his father was a high-ranking military officer in the early 1940s. With no hesitation, he said: “To help Chinese people have a better life. Chinese people had suffered from hunger and lack of nutrition for many years.” His words of him spoke of a conviction that agriculture is a noble cause. It is this seemingly simple but challenging mission to give people sufficient food and better lives that brings together so many people who are devoted to agriculture, despite their being from diverse political systems and cultural backgrounds.

Forty years of successful economic reform and development have elevated China from concern about the basic food supply to improving the quality and structure of its citizens’ nutrition. Its role on the world stage is becoming increasingly significant. Looking to the future, I am convinced that the world needs China and the US to work together to address the most serious challenges.

Fifty years ago, Nixon landed in Beijing. It took a group of visionary leaders using creative diplomacy to craft a practical template for these two vastly different countries to collaborate in areas of common interest. Today, many challenges cannot be effectively addressed without the collaboration of the two largest economies in the world, with climate change and food security being at the top of the list.

Learning from history, we must agree to disagree and focus on issues of common interest. It is only by joining forces that we can achieve our goal of bettering humankind’s future.

The author is the assistant director of Agriculture and Food Systems Extension at the University of Maryland, College Park. The author contributed this article to China Watch, a think tank powered by China Daily.

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