In 2008, the journal Nature called him one of the five crop researchers who could change the world. His name is Jianhua Zhang, and today he is Professor of Plant Biology in the School of Life Sciences and Director of State Key Laboratory of Agrobiotechnology at The Chinese University of Hong Kong.
His office is a long way from both his origins and where his research finds application. When I met him there, we discussed both his work on how plants use water and ways to make them grow with less water as well as what drives him personally to do the kind of work he does.
Water is a key issue in China – with shortages in some parts of the country resulting in desertification and a surfeit in others where floods would happen if they did not grow rice. Using water wisely, then, is a crucial challenge – in rice it involves an alternate wetting and drying system but in the drylands of the Northwest partial root zone irrigation is key. Things have changed greatly during his lifetime, as he explains, from the famine and hunger during the Cultural Revolution to today. In this first part of the interview he focuses on the science he has been involved with.
In this second part of the interview he talks more personally about what lies behind his passion for this work, drawing on the history of his family and their experiences over the last 50 years or so, when during his childhood an estimated 30-50 million people died of starvation. He then reflects on what he’ll do in the future, the need to make farming greener, the role of food imports, the constraints on production in China and meat consumption.
See also my earlier China vignette blogs.