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Zhao Zhihai, sowing hope for world food security

(Xinhua)    08:31, October 17, 2019

SHIJIAZHUANG, Oct. 16 -- It is now the harvest season of millet in northern China, and Zhao Zhihai, lauded the "father of hybrid foxtail millet" in China, has buried himself in the field.

With his dark skin and blue-gray suit, the 61-year-old world-leading expert looks like an ordinary farmer in northern China.

"I have a dream that we could bring China's millet planting area from the current 1.33 million hectares back to 10 million hectares, as in the early days after the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949," he said.

"Once successful, the country's grain output would be increased by 20 million tonnes, which is of great significance to the world food security," the scientist added.

Foxtail millet, one of the world's oldest cultivated millet, was originated in China. In 2011, Chinese archaeologists found remains of foxtail millet in the city of Wu'an, north China's Hebei Province, which could date back to between 8,700 and 7,500 years, the earliest evidence of the world's crop cultivation.

Zhao's devotion to foxtail millet started from a two-month experimental course concerning the light and temperature-sensitive reaction of millet when he studied at Hebei Agricultural University.

"When other classmates hanged on the weekend, I was busy moving pots of millet in and out of the house," he said.

Zhao worked for the Millet Research Institute in the Zhangjiakou Academy of Agricultural Sciences in Hebei after graduation in 1982. His life has been tied up with millet research since then.

At the end of 1960s, more than 30 Chinese institutions were engaged in the development of hybrid millet. Most of them had given up long time ago, but Zhao kept on.

One afternoon in 1989, after seven years of numerous failed experiments, an idea popped up. "As millet has its unique characteristics, we shouldn't develop it in the models of rice or sorghum."

He abandoned the hybrid millet research method that had been used for more than 20 years in China and adopted a new way of light and temperature-sensitive two-line method.

He almost lived in the fields. To shorten the research cycle, his team led a migratory life, heading back and forth between northern and southern China for winter breeding, spring sowing and drought resistance breeding.

Zhao's hard work paid off in 1994, when his team made a breakthrough by successfully selecting the photo (thermo) sensitive sterile line 821, bringing new hope for the hybrid millet study.

In 2007, his "Zhang Hybrid Millet" (ZHM) registered a record-high output of 810 kg per mu (0.067 hectares).

The next year, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization introduced a pilot program to grow ZHM in 10 African countries, including Ethiopia, Nigeria, Ghana, Benin, and Senegal.

ZHM currently has a planting area of more than 13.33 million hectares in 14 provinces across China.

"Millet is a treasure," Zhao said.

The plantation of every 6.67 million hectares of hybrid millet can save 10 billion cubic meters of water per year, which is very suitable for arid northern China, he said. "As millet is drought-resistant, it can also increase food production by utilizing barren land that can't be used for other crops."

In around 2014, Zhao began an experiment to grow ZHM to use its straw as a substitution of imported forage grass to solve the severe shortage of high-quality feeding straws in China.

"It can help improve the competitiveness of China's dairy industry and safeguard the safety of its animal husbandry production," he said.

(For the latest China news, Please follow People's Daily on Twitter and Facebook)(Web editor: Liang Jun, Bianji)

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