July 2018 at 8:28 AM—The sky is gray, heavy with rain. This is our second day in Inner Mongolia, and today we’ll be visiting the Professor’s alfalfa trial sites in the northern part of this Chinese province. After a quick “good morning” and a handshake, we jump in the car, and soon behind us are the tall, modern buildings that lit up the previous night’s skyline as if Hohhot was some Asian version of Las Vegas.
I stare out the window at the passing scenery—flat, green lands that stretch out to the horizon on both sides of the highway. Grasslands make up more than 40 percent of China’s total land surface, with most of it located in the northern temperate zone. But what initially catches my attention is the groupings of young trees on the wide shoulders of the northbound highway, the results of an ambitious and, what seems to be a successful, fight against desertification. The trees and the steppes beyond them soon give way to large agricultural fields—perfect rows of perfect potato plants, thousands of yellow-dots swaying on the cusps of canola plants; flowerless but promising sunflower stalks; some short-sized maize; soya, wheat; and a peppering of sheep and cattle here and there.
“There’s so much land here,” Professor Linqing Yu says, referring to the northlands. “But the soil where alfalfa is grown is poor, unlike these fertile plots you see out there. And combined with the harsh climate, it makes it very challenging for alfalfa to grow here.”
Prof. Linqing Yu is our local Crop Wild Relative (CWR) alfalfa pre-breeding partner and Professor for Plant Breeding at the Institute of Grasslands Research of the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences (IGR/CAAS). For the last 15 years, he’s been developing new varieties of alfalfa, or lucerne, as Medicago sativa is known in some parts of the world. Starting in 2015, the CWR alfalfa pre-breeding project has allowed him to continue his work, crossing alfalfa wild relatives (M. sativa subspecies falcata) with its domesticated counterpart (M.s. sativa), evaluating and selecting new lines that better tolerate colder temperatures and poor, drought-stricken soils, while still delivering high yield.
Alfalfa, “queen of forages,” a high-yielding crop with high nutritional quality, could make a big difference in the lives of the rural folk that carve out a living here in Inner Mongolia as best they can.
Alfalfa also adds nitrogen to soil and improves soil structure. Prof. Linqing Yu can already picture row upon row of alfalfa plants growing here.
Ben Kilian, Plant Genetic Resources Scientist at the Crop Trust, and I are here visiting Prof. Linqing Yu to see first-hand the progress undertaken thus far under the CWR Project. I am also here to gather information and images for this story, to learn more about this specific pre-breeding project, one of 19 the Crop Trust is supporting through its global, ten-year CWR Project, funded by the Norwegian government.
“Alfalfa has 20 percent protein, which makes it a top feed for milk cows,” the Professor says. “And you know, Hohhot is the dairy capital of China.”
Hohhot is also the capital of Inner Mongolia, a mid-sized city by Chinese standards that houses 3 million people, and is the third-largest economy of the province. Hohhot is known for being the home-base of the nationally renowned dairy giants Yili and Mengniu. Though China’s dairy industry—the third in the world now—is largely composed of 100-plus cow-outfits, there are still many small-scale farmers (30 percent according to Prof. Linqing Yu) who own, care for, and depend on a few heads of livestock.
The previous day, at the edge of Gongbuban, a small village south of Hohhot, we’d met a 19-year old girl named Wuxuejiao. She was looking after her family’s two dozen cows that, spread out in the bottom of a basin, ruminated away with the slow, deliberate way they have, swapping flies away and eyeing us sideways. Wuxuejiao’s face lit up with curiosity when we approached her. With a low but confident voice she responded to the questions we asked via the Professor.
“School is finished,” Prof. Linqing Yu told us. “This is how she spends her holidays.”
The Professor knows the people who will benefit directly from his work: not as a target group or a compilation of statistics and dry facts, but by first and last name.
He is friends with these people, has been to their homes, shared meals with them, and cares for them. His willingness to make a difference in their lives underpins his work.
Earlier that day, we’d visited the GRI Experimental Station located 40 km (25 miles) south of Hohhot. As we walked through one of his nurseries, and marveled at the wealth of diversity he harbored there, Prof. Linqing Yu explained the importance of local adaptation found in wild alfalfa species.
Behind us, a husband and wife team of farmers tended to two of the Professor’s trial parcels. The man, Guo Junlong, stoically hoed the land, scratching away the small plants that had managed to grow in the poor, dry soil. The woman, Yue Xianglin, pulled at weeds with both hands in plots where young alfalfa plants grew. Further back, in a bigger plot of land, an old tractor grumbled by, readying the land for the planting of a new trial.
It was clearly a bigger operation than what Ben had expected, a welcomed surprise that he took in with a wide grin on his face. Ben is the Crop Trust liaison with the 50-plus CWR partners who are working to bring back some wild and beneficial diversity into our domesticated crops, teasing out those sturdy traits that will allow farmers to continue producing our food whilst facing the unpredictable challenges that come about due to climate change.
There’s a picture of him I shot that day that show the pure joy he experiences when he’s out in the field, interacting with our partners: kneeling down next to the Professor, he’s caught up in the moment, surrounded by large alfalfa bushes sprinkled with tiny flowers colored mostly purple, but here and there, white ones, cream ones, blue ones, multicolored ones, and in large groupings, yellow ones too, which I would soon come to recognize as M.s.falcata, an alfalfa wild relative that proliferates freely in the grasslands of northern Inner Mongolia.
Interestingly, there is a correlation between flower color and some traits. “Those plants with purple flowers have better yield. Those with yellow ones (the wilds) can tolerate cold temperatures and drought conditions,” Prof. Linqing Yu explained, as he walked through the rows of alfalfa plants.
“At the moment, I have 100 combinations of sativa and falcata,” he added.
Overall, their performance has far exceeded expectations in his trials, both near Hohhot, and in the northern, western and eastern regions of Inner Mongolia. But also in northern Kazakhstan, where our partners there, the National Academy of Sciences of the Republic of Kazakhstan (KSRIAPG), are working on the same cold and drought tolerance that’ll help Kazak farmers who face similar extreme conditions.
For the millions of small-scale farmers around the world who own a few heads of cattle, these animals are first and foremost a fundamental pillar in their families’ food security. A dairy cow represents much more than just milk. Yes, it provides milk for the family, but also proves to be a regular source of income. Cow dung is used for cooking and heating, replacing fuelwood or fossil fuels; it also serves as a natural fertilizer, which famers use in their vegetable and fruit plots.
“A healthy cow means a healthy family,” says Alan Humphries from the South Australian Research and Development Institute (SARDI) and lead partner of our four-country CWR alfalfa pre-breeding project.
“It’s a similar story when it comes to sheep. In the northern regions of Inner Mongolia, in China, half-a-dozen sheep means milk, meat, wool,” he adds.
But as more and more of the rich and scarce agricultural land is destined for food crop production, mostly for cereals, livestock is—and has been for some time now—being displaced, shoved to the poorer soils, to locations that have less water and harsher weather.
Problem compounded: poor soils are only getting poorer; the weather is increasingly more extreme and unpredictable. So, in order to make ends meet, small-scale farmers must be more efficient and effective in everything they do. The same holds true for mid- and large-scale farmers. While the challenges they face are different, in the years to come they both will have to produce more (or at least the same quantities as today) with limited resources—land, water, fertilizers, etc. Undoubtedly, this means adopting better practices now. It also means embracing more resilient varieties of the crops they grow—including alfalfa, the most important forage crop in the world. For small-scale farmers, cut and stored away as hay or silage, it is the lifeline that sees their livestock through the long, cold winters.
This is, of course, an obvious fact. More so to them: to those women and men who toil under sun and rain, out in the fields, sowing seeds and plucking weeds, feeding, herding and milking their livestock, and harvesting—as the old, tired but true saying goes—the fruit of their labour. They, like we all do in whatever line of work we find ourselves in, want to get the most out of their work. And that is why farmers who live across the wide, open expanses of Inner Mongolia, and beyond, ring up Prof. Linqing Yu asking for alfalfa seeds.
12:10 am—Leaving the main highway, past the town of Wulanhua, we enter East Maoduhai, a small village where no more than 200 people live. At the end of a cul-de-sac, we meet a quiet, thin and small woman with short black hair. Because, as I learned there and then, one does not ask a woman’s name in China, Prof. Linqing Yu shares with me her husband’s name: Wang Wanyuan. But it is the wife that tends to two of the Professor’s alfalfa field trials, including the one we soon find ourselves in: a narrow stretch of land wedged between a sunflower field, the outer-wall of a neighbor’s home, and a tiny rudimentary sheep stall.
“This material has already survived three winters of minus 30 degrees Celsuis (minus 22 degrees Fahrenheit), and less,” says the Professor.
Days later, Alan will inform us that the Professor’s commitment to his trials led him to temporarily relocate to the village during the winter months, when he zealously protected his plants from the hungry white rabbits that ventured into the cold looking for food.
Now, it’s harvest season. More accurately, it’s a little late for cutting and harvesting his plots. Prof. Linqing Yu kept this trial for us to see and appreciate how his plants are responding in this environment.
Sturdy plants, overgrown, heavy with flowers and fruits that contain 10–20 seeds, they are proof—and promise—that his crosses can help farmers in colder and dryer climates grow better feed for their livestock.
As we leave the site, Prof. Linqing Yu yanks up a handful of alfalfa and offers it to Mrs. Wang Wanyuan’s sheep. With the ever-present fear that rises from the deep and ancient instinct of the hunted, the white and furry animals hesitate but eventually approach him. They move in unison, one thick, multi-headed, ball of wool. In no time, the alfalfa is gone.
M.s.sativa is the domesticated alfalfa that farmers know and grow across the world — in China, Chile, Kazakhstan, Australia, the four countries involved in our CWR alfalfa pre-breeding project, as well as in the many other countries that grow it. Alfalfa was first cultivated in ancient Iran, where 6,000-year-old remains have been found. In 490 BC, the Persians invaded Greek territory and, through Greece, introduced alfalfa to the Europeans. From Europe it moved to the Americas, introduced by Spanish colonizers in the 16th century. In the 1850s, alfalfa seeds from Chile arrived to California, from where it quickly spread out to the rest of the U.S., the current top producer of the crop.
In China, it’s a 2,000-year-old crop. At the time, alfalfa was fed to battle horses. As armies conquered new lands, they carried alfalfa seeds with them, planting the crop along the way. Indeed, the word “alfalfa” comes from Arabic, Persian, and Kashmiri words meaning “best horse fodder” and “horse power.”
“In those days, horses needed the protein alfalfa provides; they needed energy to run,” says Prof. Linqing Yu. “But today, horses are bred mostly for their meat. They are not as important as milk cows here.”
In other words, in China, alfalfa is too expensive of a crop for feeding horses. Or sheep, which are mostly fed Leymus chinensis (commonly known as false wheatgrass or Chinese rye grass), a dominant perennial grass native to the Inner Mongolia steppe. But, as we’d hear on several occasions throughout the day, farmers in the north of the province want to feed their sheep alfalfa. Some have seen the field trials and they too are requesting seed from the Professor.
In fact, with the national demand depending largely on imports, both the local and central governments are incentivizing farmers to grow alfalfa. Moreover, alfalfa prices are more stable than the capricious, high-today-low-tomorrow potato or wheat prices that plague farmers.
In 2009, China became the 5th largest grower of alfalfa (tied to Italy), behind Russia, Canada, Argentina and the U.S. Still, China’s alfalfa imports have been steadily increasing, mirroring the growth of its dairy industry.
In 2016, from the U.S. alone, China imported 1.29 million metric tons of alfalfa hay; a 23 percent increase from the previous year. To put these numbers in perspective, USDA’s GAIN Report has noted: “industry analysts estimate China’s dairy feed sector needs 5 million tons of high-quality hay and 10 to 20 [million] tons of lesser quality hay annually.” It’s no surprise then that back in 2016 China launched its “National Alfalfa Industry Development Plan (2016-2020)” which set a goal for the country to produce 5.4 million metric tons of alfalfa hay by 2020.
The Chinese dairy industry is also keen to see their milk-providers adopt this crop. Better fed cows means higher quality milk. And though the Professor’s work undoubtedly contributes to the overall national production of alfalfa, which directly benefits the immense dairy companies, his aim—as ours—with the CWR alfalfa pre-breeding project is to improve the lives of the rural poor: those Inner Mongolian small-scale livestock farmers, like 19-year-old Wuxuejiao’s family, and Mrs. Wang Wanyuan’s neighbors.
“There are about 0.6 million smallholder dairy farmers in Inner Mongolia,” says the Professor. “They produce about 30-40 percent of the total milk supply.”
The problem is not reluctance from these farmers to adopt the crop. The problem, simply, is that current varieties do not perform well enough in the different environments found throughout Inner Mongolia, and beyond.
“It’s too dry in the west, too cold in the center, too rainy in the east,” he says. “And in the west and central regions of Inner Mongolia is where you’ll find the poorest farmers. Alfalfa can transform their lives.”
1:40 pm—We are waiting for “The Landlord,” a mid-scale farmer that rents land to the Professor for his trials. Li Fan is his name. He’s a young man with a quick and friendly smile, short-cropped, thinning hair, and skin tempered by long days under the sun. His farm’s headquarters is fittingly located at the top of a hill. From here, as far as my eyes can see, all the surrounding land is his: field upon field of potatoes, soybean, corn, wheat and sunflower. By the look of the top-of-the-line tractors and precision sowing machines and multi-sprayer devices parked under a huge hangar-like structure, he runs an impressive operation. Li Fan lives in the city, we are told, but his parents, brother-in-law, and a handful of other folks live at the farm.
“They all work for him,” the Professor informs us. We are now in a small room, communicating with a few of the farm-hands with smiles and hand-gestures. One of them cuts open a melon and offers us a slice.
“Xièxiè,” we say. Thank you. We do as they do, eating the flesh of the fruit, along with the seeds and the rind. Then, we’re off to the trial sites. With us is Chen Yulin, a 66-year old farmer, and the sole person responsible for tending to the Professor’s trials here.
“The old man loves the land very much,” Prof. Linqing Yu tells us. “He wants to see it being put to good use.”
Though Chen Yulin helped him prepare the land that we are standing on, a five-hectare plot where the Professor will continue his cold tolerance trials, he himself hand-planted 200 different lines here. “It took me two days,” the Professor says matter of fact.
Prof. Linqing Yu is a hands-on scientist; he needs to do in order to be certain his trials are developing according to plan. He does the crosses. He clones the promising lines. He’s practically a one-man breeding program.
The Professor’s phone rings. He exchanges a few words and hangs up. “Another farmer looking for seeds,” he says. Sometimes they call him during evening hours, when he’s at home. Though his wife may not appreciate these off-hours calls, Prof. Linqing Yu welcomes them, saying it’s a sign, minor as it may be, that his work will have a bigger impact in farmers’ lives. For now, unfortunately, there are no seeds to be distributed.
A son of farmers, a friend of farmers—“I am a farmer,” he says—Prof. Linqing Yu studied Grassland Science at the Inner Mongolia Agricultural University in Hohhot, his adopted city since those bygone student days. His interest in alfalfa began in 1991, when he initiated both his collecting and breeding work.
“After 20 years of focusing mostly on collecting—both landraces and wild relatives—I shifted emphasis to breeding and am now dedicated almost exclusively to this,” he states, sweeping his open arms over the alfalfa fields.
Plant breeding is a time-consuming process, one that Prof. Linqing Yu is fully committed to, and clearly enjoys. Case in point: it took him 17 years, and the inter-crossing of 12 different genotypes (six Chinese; six foreign), to develop Zhongcao 3, a high-yielding variety that was released in 2010 and has proven quite successful with farmers around Hohhot.
“Yes, very successful, sure, absolutely,” he tells me, “but not that tolerant to cold or drought.” So in his present field trials, Prof. Linqing Yu uses Zhongcao 3 as a control, a “check line” he’s planted several times in the same plot, interspersed within the various new lines being tested.
“Zhongcao 3 is also being used as a parental line to produce hybrids with M.s. falcata”, adds Ben. “The new material that outperforms Zhongcao 3 will enter a new round of trials, which will help the Professor pair down the crosses he’s made under this project, leading to the selection of that one new variety that will reach and benefit farmers—here, in Inner Mongolia, but hopefully elsewhere too.”
As we walk through his field trial, the Professor reminds me of a child in his personal playground, proud to be showing us the results of his work. Almost waist-deep in a sea of shrubs speckled with purple tiny flowers, he stop in front of a tall, thick specimen and grabs a stem, stretching it straight up. It almost reaches his shoulder.
“I want to produce alfalfa/lucerne as tall as me,” he says with a smile. He quickly corrects himself, as he is standing next to Ben, who’s head-and-shoulders taller than him, and says “as tall as Ben.” Breeding taller plants means more biomass, which translates to more livestock feed. It also allows for the possibility of machine-harvesting the alfalfa fields. In other words, more efficient management.
High-yielding, drought and cold tolerant—“it’s been the Professor’s long-term dream to get more of this alfalfa into the grasslands of Inner Mongolia,” says Alan. “It’s a naturalized plant there, but one that was almost wiped out with overgrazing. Though new varieties have been introduced, largely from the U.S., these have not been adapted to the unique environment there, and frankly don’t perform as well as alfalfa could.”
Under the CWR alfalfa pre-breeding project, Prof. Linqing Yu has been able to introduce new variability into his breeding program, to improve the overall performance of alfalfa in Inner Mongolia. And starting in 2019, Prof. Linqing Yu will work with hundreds of farmers from Inner Mongolia, providing them with seeds and the necessary knowledge for them to not only grow alfalfa for feed, but also for seed. More importantly, in Phase II (2018-2020), Prof. Linqing Yu will continue testing new materials under different environmental conditions, and selecting the most promising lines, one of which will become a new variety that will be released in the next couple of years.
“Yes, these new varieties will help many farmers in the region,” he says, “but there is still more work to be done.”
Photos courtesy of LM Salazar | Crop Trust