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A friendship award recipient’s China story

By Hugh Blair (People's Daily Online)    15:26, March 10, 2020

Editor’s note:

Hugh Blair, Massey University Professor of Animal Science, is a New Zealand scientist that received a China Friendship Award in Beijing in 2016. Professor Blair began his working relationship with China in 2005. His interest in increasing the production of red meat, predominantly from sheep, led to a friendship with Chinese colleagues that continues to this day. The opinions expressed in this article belong solely to the author, and not necessarily to People's Daily Online.

What led to my close connection to China?

I first visited China in 1983, taking a day trip from Macao to visit the birth place of Sun YetSen and the city of Shiqi. Little did I know that 23 years later I would embark on a journey that would result in me achieving a China Friendship Award in 2016. I do not know the ‘rules’ by which the China Friendship Awards are decided, however, it is quite clear in my mind that whatever I have achieved has been due to the efforts of a lot of people, both in China and in New Zealand, and many of those people are certainly my friends.

Blair is awarded his China Friendship Award in 2016 by Vice Premier Ma Kai

What led to my close connection to China? The ignition point was in 2005 when Professor Chu Alex of Massey University suggested to the President of Peking University and the Vice Chancellor of Massey University that Massey could act in a 3-way partnership to help Peking University achieve a mentoring role with Shihezi University. This foresight by Professor Chu resulted in the Chinese Ministry of Education formalising such agreements as Tripartite Agreements (also known as three-brothers). My involvement began when my project on examining the genetics of why some sheep breed all year round and others don’t was selected by Shihezi University as the first collaborative research project under the Tripartite Agreement. The project was subsequently funded by the Chinese Ministry of Science and Technology.

My second visit to China was in 2007, with the primary purpose being to design the sheep genetics project. However, looking back from 2020, the most important thing that happened during that visit was to introduce me and my Massey colleagues to several people who have become friends and collaborators, including Professors Li Daquan, Gao Jianfeng, Yan Genqiang, Zhao Zongsheng (Shihezi University) and Professor Ma Runlin (Chinese Academy of Science). Professor Chu Alex accompanied us on most of our early visits and his language and cultural teachings were hugely important to those of us who knew little of both. During subsequent visits, we have continued to add new friends and collaborators, with the majority of those being connected to those first contacts made in 2007. Two of special interest are Professor Liu Mingjun and his team from the Xinjiang Academy of Animal Science and Mr Wang Yuecheng and his staff at Qianbao Farm, Yancheng.

Blair talks to Professor Gao Jianfeng in Xinjiang about sheep farming in Xinjiang

The purpose of this article is to provide my opinion on the major changes I have seen in China over the time I have been visiting China. Although I have visited China about 20 times, each time taking 11-13 hours to fly from Auckland to the east coast of China, I have only seen a very small part of this huge and diverse country, so please bear this in mind. Some of these visits have been as short as 3 days to assist with a specific issue, such as a scientific review or helping with an on-farm matter. My most recent visit was in September 2019, when I received a Friendship Award from Shihezi University, but we also took the opportunity to visit other collaborators. My longest visit was in 2012 when over a 3-week period when my wife and I visited research groups in Beijing, Urumqi and Shihezi. During this time, research ideas were developed, seminars were given, English language lessons provided, farms were visited and assistance was given to students writing research papers. In all of these visits, I have felt valued for the knowledge I bring with me from my 40+ years of capability in research and teaching and widespread international experience. Importantly, it has not been a one-way exchange of knowledge and ideas, with me being the beneficiary of wisdom from wherever I have visited in China. An example is the huge research effort China invested into understanding the effects of different plant fertilisers on the myriad soils and climatic conditions throughout China. This research project cost 350 million RMB and involved partners from across China, with the high-quality research being published in the top research journal Nature. I am not aware of any other country that has undertaken such a massive agricultural investigation.

Profound changes witnessed during my visits

The most obvious change to me during my visits to China has occurred in transportation. In 1983, the main form of transportation we observed was by bicycle. By 2020, high-speed trains, air travel and personal cars are ho-hum and just a normal part of everyday life. The consequent changes that ease of transport have brought are many, such as, internal and foreign tourism, movement of goods and new cities, although there are some negatives such as clogged roads and air quality which are now being addressed. These all dovetail nicely with the Belt and Road Initiative. From a personal perspective, travelling by car in China is very different from travelling in most western countries. I have driven cars in the UK, Europe and USA, which of course requires a change in thinking about being on the left-hand side (New Zealand, Australia, UK) or the right-hand side (USA, Canada, Europe). But I have never driven in China and I have no ambition to do so as the official and unofficial rules are so different. In addition, having a professional driver allows much more time for serious discussion about work and the scenery and allows me to arrive at my destination ready to work.

Another change, which is closer to my interests, is the increase in food production. It will be a challenge for China to be self-sufficient in food production, as large tracts of land are currently unsuitable for plant or animal production for a variety of reasons. Perhaps new, as yet, unknown technologies will make these areas usable, but for the immediate future, China will need to source a proportion of its food from trading partners. As an aside, mealtimes are a great pleasure in China, there are so many different regional foods to choose from, all spiced with their own peculiar and lovely tastes. In addition, eating is a much more social event than in most western countries I have visited. Time is taken to debate big issues, whether they be scientific, social or political. There are also so many stories associated with Chinese foods such as eating the meat from a sheep’s head. When I experienced this as the guest of honour for the first time in Xinjiang, it was disconcerting to be presented with a whole, cooked, head and a knife to carve and share with others at the table. Upon seeing my reticence, my host explained that each part of the head (cheek, tongue, ear, eyeball and so on) had a particular meaning as it was delivered. The person who received the ear would say – I will listen to your words of wisdom and learn from you. The person receiving the tongue will say that they will endeavour to be as eloquent as you, and so on. It was a humbling experience and one that I cherish.

My working relationship with China

Much of the animal protein consumed in China is from fish, poultry and pigs. However, it is clear that many people in China enjoy red meat from sheep, goats and cattle. China has the largest sheep population in the world, but per head production is low for a variety of reasons. This has been the primary focus of the research our Massey University team has been involved in over the past 15 years.

Blair and Alana (wife) with postgraduate students at Shihezi University after a workshop on how to write a scientific paper

Our research projects with staff at Shihezi University have all been focussed on improving the productivity of sheep on grasslands. Many of the farms we were attempting to assist were managed by the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps. The sheep are exposed to environmental extremes including 40 degree scelsius (°C) temperatures in summer and -20 degree in winter. Grasslands are shared and are not subdivided with fencing. There are huge challenges to improving productivity and the fundamental research we have undertaken will take time to work its way through to on-farm application, but that is the nature of research. One piece of research which has attracted significant national and international attention was the DNA sequencing of an important region of a sheep chromosome that contributes to disease resistance. Unlocking the fundamental basis of the genetics, will enable new approaches to improving sheep health. Sheep meat is greatly important in the diet of people in Xinjiang, and sheep are a useful animal to consume plant material that cannot be digested by humans. As a consequence, sheep are a very important economic resource for farmers in Xinjiang, giving them the opportunity to relieve some of the financial challenges they face. Sheep meat from animals grazed on natural pasture is highly regarded for both its taste and its healthiness. And of course, Xinjiang is remote from the big eastern markets like Beijing and Shanghai, giving a romantic aura to Xinjiang lamb. The research undertaken at institutions like Shihezi University is crucial to helping these farmers improve their financial situation. Critically, it is also important to invest not only in the research, but in the process of communicating the findings to farmers so that they can make the appropriate changes in the way they farm. So, when the research with DNA results in knowing which animals are more resistant to diseases or results in a new vaccine, that is only the first step.

In 2014, Professor MA brought to our attention a new form of sheep farming, whereby the animals were held in large sheds with 800 to 1200 animals per shed, and many sheds per farm. This is not uncommon for poultry, pigs and cattle, but there are few international examples with sheep. This is an exciting development as it means sheep can be farmed in areas where keeping the sheep outdoors on large tracts of land was infeasible due to the land being used for intensive cropping. The proximity to cropping land enabled the use of crop waste to feed the sheep, especially after it had been fermented as silage. Feeding the crop waste to sheep has, in turn, meant the waste has not been burnt, thereby reducing air pollution. A definite win-win outcome.

After visiting several of these intensive sheep farms, Professor Ma introduced me to Mr Wang Yuecheng who has invested significant funds into sheep sheds, Hu sheep, labour and infrastructure on the nearby to Yancheng. Mr Wang is committed to using science to improve the productivity and profitability of his intensive sheep farm, and he has invited several Chinese and Massey University sheep production experts to assist with improving the functioning of his farm. The approach taken by Mr Wang has been recognised by Ministry officials, resulting in the farm becoming a national exemplar of how to implement this form of intensive sheep farming. At least in part, the excitement is because this type of farming on just a few 1000m2 could provide enough sheep meat for up to 1,000,000 people. While this is not as efficient as poultry and pigs, sheep are able to use vegetable matter, such as grass and straw, not usable by humans, whereas pigs and poultry compete with humans for grain. Another win-win.

There is nothing accidental about incredible advances seen in China

Our activities at Qianbao Farm lead nicely into another wonderful development for China over the last few decades. With huge political and financial support, science in China is undergoing rapid transformation. Major advances have been made in many fields, including space travel, information technology and (of course) food production. We need to be clear that this is a managed process, targets have been set, funding made available and top scientists engaged; there is nothing accidental about these incredible advances seen in China over the last several decades.

Blair and others at the Purple Mud Springs farm in Xinjiang

An example of the world-leading research in sheep genetics is the work by Professor Liu Mingjun, who I mentioned earlier, whereby his team found the mutation responsible for short tails in sheep. This may not seem overly important to those unfamiliar with farming practices in New Zealand and Australia, however, in those two countries alone, tails are removed from 10s of millions of lambs every year to avoid health problems associated with faeces adhering to the tail. Farmers are faced with a vexed question – do they leave the tail on the lamb and allow the health issues to ensue or do they take off the tail which incurs a short period of pain. Professor Liu has shown that by using gene editing tools, genetically long-tailed sheep can be induced to produce short-tailed sheep and that this condition is inherited in future generations. An exquisite solution. Summarising this tail-editing solution into a few sentences does not adequately explain the extensive and detailed scientific research that occurred in the background by Professor Liu and his team. They examined the genetic diversity between many sheep breeds farmed in Xinjiang, before hypothesising the existence of the short-tail mutation, they then had to identify the most likely DNA sequence to target for editing and had to hone their skills in gene editing and in-vitro reproduction. All this was supported by research funding from the national purse.

It seems that the speed of change in China is unlikely to relent over the next decade. It must be expected that there will be unintended consequences that will challenge current paradigms. For example, the increasing urbanization of China’s people means that farm labour is becoming more difficult to find. Improved education, social media and globalization all mean that young people are more likely to aspire to be bankers, lawyers or IT consultants than to look after animals (and crops) for food production. This is not peculiar to China; many western countries are grappling with the same issue. There is no one solution, but the sooner that effort is expended in addressing the issue, the sooner solutions will be found. Unintended consequences can be solved.

As my professional life inexorably moves towards retirement, I have pondered whether there will still be the opportunity for me to retain my now deep-seated connections with China. I have no doubt that email and WeChat communication will be ongoing with my friends and colleagues for some time, whether that be about births, marriages and health or work. Whether I will continue to travel to China will be dependent on whether I can make a useful contribution to whatever the issue is. Massey University is making a partnership with Huazhong Agriculture University in Wuhan and I see an exciting future in our anticipated shared degree programmes and student exchanges, albeit with a bit of a hiccup at the moment regarding travel. I may be able to make a small contribution to teaching in Wuhan given my experience and knowledge of Chinese sheep farming. I hope that is possible.

What of the future for China and New Zealand?

I am proud of the long and strong connection between our two countries and I am pleased to have played a minor role in enhancing our relationship over the last decade. It seems a perfect relationship, New Zealand produces more food than it needs, and China needs to import food. Over the last three decades, New Zealand has shown it is an independent thinker and believes in fairness for not only people, but also animals who we rely on for food, fibre, draught and companionship. With mutual respect and recognition between our two countries, the future should continue to offer wonderful two-brother opportunities waiting to be harvested by those prepared to take up the challenge. 

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(Web editor: Hongyu, Bianji)

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