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Lifetime researching corn reaps national bounty

China Daily | Updated: 2022-01-20 09:03
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Cheng Xiangwen, a corn seed engineer of Henan province's Hebi Academy of Agricultural Sciences, discusses the growth of corn with fellow agricultural workers in a field in Hainan province. CHINA DAILY

HAIKOU-For his 86th birthday, Cheng Xiangwen enjoyed a corn-shaped cake prepared by his colleagues.

"My birthday wish is to develop better corn varieties," he said. After the celebration, he set off on yet another trip to Sanya, in South China's Hainan province, where he has worked for a large chunk of his life.

The 86-year-old is an agronomist and has dedicated his life to studying and cultivating corn. He comes to Sanya every year in November and stays for six months.

Cheng's work is part of national efforts to strengthen agriculture and food security.

Over the years, China's policies on ensuring food security have played a significant role in elevating the living standards of its 1.4 billion people and have contributed to global food security. Ensuring food security will remain a national priority this year.

During the annual central rural work conference held last month, Chinese leaders reiterated that the country must maintain a secure food supply at all times and urged all relevant parties to play their role in protecting farmland and stabilizing grain output.

Cheng is a native of central China's Henan province, a massive center of corn production. After graduating in 1963, he became an agrotechnician in Henan's Xunxian county. At the time, the national average annual corn output was a meager 750 kilograms per hectare.

Once, as he was conducting a field survey, a female farmer said to him in tears: "You graduated from college. Could you please find a way to boost the corn output here? If the yields are higher, our children will no longer suffer from hunger."

Since then, Cheng has made breeding high-yield corn varieties his life's goal.

In 1964, he came to Hainan, where it is warmer, and began breeding work. He slashed the cultivation period and created hybrid corn breeds for the first time. With these new breeds, average corn output in Xunxian exceeds 3,750 kg per hectare per year. The farmers there describe Cheng's seeds as "golden beans".

Despite the beautiful coastline, the area where Cheng works used to be plagued by grinding poverty and poor traffic and was once known locally for having many rats, mosquitoes, leeches and poisonous snakes.

At the time, he did everything on his own. He went back and forth between the cornfield and a public toilet several kilometers away to collect manure, and lived in a village house for over 20 years. He often went deep into the mountains to chop firewood for cooking.

Cheng's hard work has paid off. Now, authorities have approved 14 new, high-yield corn varieties he helped develop.

Soon, he will celebrate his 57th Chinese Lunar New Year at the cultivation center in Sanya. He now heads a research team of 10, and the research facilities have greatly improved.

The agronomist is dedicated to breeding high-yield corn varieties with greater resistance that are easier to harvest by machine. He still goes to the fields every day to observe and record the corn's growth.

"Cultivating seeds is like raising children. Only by careful parenting can you become familiar with their strengths and weaknesses and help them grow healthily," he said.


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