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Wheat breeding expert devotes entire life to developing new varieties, increases China’s wheat output by 20 billion kilograms

(People's Daily Online)    13:49, July 21, 2020

“In the agricultural field, it’s not important if the result you want is achieved in your lifetime. The most important point is that after the hard work of generations, we can ensure that China is able to provide enough food for its people,” Cheng Shunhe, an 81-year-old wheat breeding expert, told People’s Daily.

Cheng Shunhe (first on the left) checks the growth of wheat in northwest China’s Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region. (File photo)

Cheng, an academician at the Chinese Academy of Engineering (CAE), has headed research into breeding a series of new and improved wheat varieties.

The wheat variety series developed by Cheng’s team, particularly the Yangmai 5 and Yangmai 158, have been grown in more than 400, 000 square kilometers of farmland, making them the wheat varieties with the largest acreage in China at the end of the 1980s and the 1990s, and helping China’s wheat output surge by 20 billion kilograms.

The two varieties also helped Cheng’s team win first prize in the National Science and Technology Progress Award twice, in 1991 and 1998.

Cheng is in vigorous health, and works from home for the research institute of agricultural sciences of Lixiahe area in Yangzhou, east China’s Jiangsu province. Although he is not able to hear things clearly, he still has an active mind and is full of enthusiasm for his job.

“I want to keep abreast of the progress of our field experiments so I can keep pace with the latest ideas in the industry,” Cheng said, adding that he is eager to get back to the wheat fields as soon as possible, as he “feels empty” when he can’t see them.

Cheng was born in Liyang, Jiangsu province, in 1939, as China was suffering one of the worst wars in its history. Like many other people in the country, Cheng’s family didn’t have enough to eat and drifted from place to place trying to earn a living.

Cheng decided when he was young that he would either study medicine so that he could save people’s lives, or agricultural sciences to help the country feed its people.

After taking the national college entrance exam, Cheng was eventually admitted into the Nanjing Agricultural University in Jiangsu’s capital city Nanjing.

During his time in college, Cheng and his classmates worked in the fields with farmers in various cities around Jiangsu.

Cheng carries out research in a wheat field in the 1990s. (File photo)

Seeing the harsh conditions and the poverty of rural areas, Cheng decided to devote his entire life to improving the agriculture sector, rural areas, and farmers’ conditions.

In 1972, Cheng was transferred to the research institute of agricultural sciences of the Lixiahe area in Yangzhou, which was then the research institute of agricultural sciences of Yangzhou, and began working in wheat breeding and cultivation.

As the wet and rainy climate in southern China caused frequent outbreaks of bakanae disease in wheat, and the grain has a relatively long breeding cycle, Cheng spent nine months a year conducting research into wheat fields.

For more than 30 years, Cheng often worked and lived in a small bungalow beside the experimental field of his institute during key periods of the breeding cycle.

“I only feel at ease when I sleep near the field,” Cheng said.

In order to make sure everything went well with his experiments, Cheng tried to use every possible second to work, and even stayed in the greenhouse during the Spring Festival. He could often be seen observing wheat seedlings even while eating.

“I didn’t know when it was a weekend or holiday when I got busy with work at that time. All I cared about was the growth cycle of wheat,” Cheng recalled.

In an effort to gain in-depth understanding of agricultural machinery, Cheng took the lead in bringing in and learning to drive his institute’s first tractor and first combine-harvester.

As a young man, Cheng had learnt Russian, began to learn English when he was 57 years old, and learned how to use a computer at the age of 59. When he was 61, Cheng started to dig into advanced molecular marker technology.

“You shouldn’t think you can’t learn new things because you’re old,” Cheng said, adding, “People all said that only northern China was suitable for growing wheat, but I think the southern areas can also grow wheat well.”

In 1998, the research team led by Cheng developed the improved wheat variety Yangmai 158, which can ensure high yields in large areas and is able to resist bakanae disease.

“Developing a wheat variety that could resist bakanae disease while ensuring high yields in large areas used to be a difficult problem worldwide, and Cheng solved it,” remarked Wu Zhaosu, Cheng’s college supervisor.

In the last 20 years, Cheng’s team has been working on breeding wheat varieties that can be sowed later but yield more, in a bid to guarantee the country’s ability to provide better food for its people.

Eventually, Cheng’s team achieved its goals. The new varieties, Yangmai 16 and Yangmai 23, can be sowed 15 days later and yield 5 percent more than the previous varieties. Furthermore, the improved varieties also ripen three to five days earlier than other wheat varieties, and can be put into storage without airing, significantly reducing production costs for farmers.

“Some people called me the ‘wheat king of southern China’. I’m not a wheat king at all. I just want to return to the wheat fields as early as possible and continue to be a guardian of the fields,” Cheng said.

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