Published: 10:24, May 14, 2024
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Fujian's innovations lead nation's quest for food security
By Li Lei and Hu Meidong in Fuzhou

Under Xi's guidance, province is leveraging its natural advantages, advancing techniques

A fish farmer selects fish for his customers in Ningde, Fujian province. (HU MEIDONG / CHINA DAILY)

As China broadens its food resources and explores new protein and carbohydrate sources, Fujian province has emerged as a valuable learning hub.

With limited arable land and frequent typhoons, the coastal province first learned to source food from its rugged terrain and vast waters when President Xi Jinping worked as a senior official in Fujian from 1985 to 2002.

In recent decades, Fujian has evolved into a significant supplier of seafood, vegetables and various edible fungi. The success belies its struggles with food self-sufficiency during rapid urbanization in the early 1990s.

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"After China's reform and opening-up, urbanization accelerated in Fujian and construction encroached on a lot of farmland," said Ye Xiaojian, who oversees a museum in Fuzhou, the provincial capital, which is dedicated to marking the province's gradual progress toward food self-sufficiency in the 1990s.

"The decrease (in farmland), coupled with a rise in the urban population, resulted in difficulties in ensuring the supply of groceries at the time," he said.

A local saying inscribed on a billboard in the museum summed up Fujian's harsh farming conditions. It reads: "Eighty percent of the land mass is rolling mountains, and one major river flows across Fujian where minimum croplands can be found".

Ye added: "We often suffer from the onslaught of typhoons and floods. So, generally speaking, after floods there would always be a spike in grocery prices in the 1990s."

In a smart incubator in Gutian county, Fujian, silver ear fungi grow on cultivation rods made from cottonseed shells. (HU MEIDONG / CHINA DAILY) 

Place of plenty

However, the food shortages are long gone.

Official figures showed fishing industry output in Ningde alone now tops 35.5 billion yuan ($4.9 billion) annually. The city boasts a multibillion-yuan business that caters to 80 percent of the country's demand for large yellow croakers, a common ingredient in Chinese dishes.

In Gutian, a county-level jurisdiction in Ningde known as the capital of edible fungi, 25 production bases churn out 900,000 metric tons of fresh fungi each year worth 6.2 billion yuan.

In the country's quest for food security amid global supply chain uncertainties, experts have touted the Fujian model as one to follow.

Xi's governance work in the province laid the groundwork for the flourishing macro food industries, providing valuable insights that can be emulated elsewhere, they added.

Lian Xin, a senior Party official from Ningde, where Xi served as Party chief between 1988 and 1990, said at a meeting in the city last week attended by China Daily, that while the shortage of arable land may appear to be a disadvantage from a traditional agricultural perspective, when seen through the lens of macro foods, this scarcity can actually be advantageous.

"We plant grains where they grow well, fish where it's right, and grow fruits where it works. Our main aim is to create a mix of farming that fits with Ningde's natural endowments," he said.

A visitor takes photos of silver ear fungi on shelves in the incubator in Gutian. (HU MEIDONG / CHINA DAILY)

Macro foods

Macro foods, also called novel foods, have gained greater recognition in recent years for their potential health benefits and their sustainability. These foods, including edible insects, fungi and seaweed, have high nutritional value and a lower environmental impact than traditional food staples like meat and dairy products.

The macro food concept was embraced by authorities in Ningde more than two decades ago.

According to Shaking Off Poverty, a collection of President Xi's speeches during his time in office in Ningde, he said in 1990 that the concept of "grain" had broadened over time to include more than just rice, wheat and corn. "The grains that are currently being discussed are actually considered as food. The concept of macro food has replaced the old grain-centered concept," the collection said.

Gutian's thriving edible fungi sector showcases China's embracing of macro foods to bolster national food security and benefit farmers.

In a local smart incubator dedicated to cultivating silver ear fungi, nozzles have been programmed to release a fine mist of water based on the fungi's growth cycle. Real-time monitoring and adjustment of temperatures are facilitated by an advanced air conditioning system. The silver ear fungi, commonly used in soups, desserts, and sweet dishes, flourish on cultivation rods.

Farmers harvest abalone bred at a fish farm in Lianjiang county, Fujian province, in 2022. (PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

"Two workers previously managed around 20 such incubators. Thanks to these smart technologies, the same duo now efficiently oversees over 170 incubators," said a government official while recently briefing a group of visitors.

In the absence of the smart system, workers would have to lug around hefty water tanks on their backs, making frequent visits to the incubators to cool the cultivation rods, the official said. The rods tend to overheat as organic matter inside decomposes, which compromises the growth of the fungi.

Thanks to new technologies and other improvements, Ningde now produces 440,000 tons of silver ear fungus each year — more than 90 percent of the national yield.

Local officials and experts are aiming to make mushrooms a dietary staple for the Chinese population, while emphasizing their health benefits.

Sun Shujing, a professor at Fujian Agriculture and Forestry University in Fuzhou who specializes in edible fungi, said silver ear fungi are a better calorie source than some traditional foods. "Mushrooms are rich in a type of carbohydrate known as polysaccharides, which can promote a feeling of fullness and reduce the likelihood of weight gain," she said.

Workers sort kelp for processing at a factory workshop in Ningde in March 2024. (HU MEIDONG / CHINA DAILY)

Innovative farming

In recent years, Fujian has charged ahead in adopting techniques that have revolutionized conventional farming practices, further expanding its competitive edge.

To mitigate the risk of rainfall transmitting plant diseases and spoiling crops, for example, vast rain shelters have been placed over vineyards in Fu'an, a county-level jurisdiction overseen by Ningde. This innovative approach has helped the vineyards net $207 million in annual sales.

Off Ningde's coast, workers raise large yellow croakers in fish pens made from biodegradable plastics. Conventional aquatic farming facilities, which weaken over time and eventually break, usually cause pollution by releasing foam and plastics into the sea.

Off the coast of Lianjiang county, an hour's drive from the provincial capital Fuzhou, a $2.5 million deep-sea fish farming platform stands three kilometers off the shore.

The fish pen measures 60 meters by 32 meters and is designed to withstand powerful typhoons.

An octagonal cylinder at the structure's core is partially submerged and enveloped by nets. It is rotated regularly to prevent algae and barnacles from obstructing the nets and endangering the fish.

A large yellow croaker cultivated in Ningde is displayed. (PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

The process also makes net repairs easier.

"More than 200,000 large yellow croakers are cultivated inside," said Lu Tongfeng, the general manager of Fujian Xinmao Fishery Development Co, the platform's owner.

Ten other similar platforms sit in the waters nearby, churning out a total of 2,000 tons of seafood each year.

As coastal waters become dotted with fish farms, fishing companies like Fujian Xinmao are turning their focus to areas farther offshore.

Lu, a former shipbuilder, attributes the move to deeper waters to engineering advances that have enabled the creation of controlled environments for fish cultivation in the open ocean. "Building the platform is much more complex than building a ship. As a fixed structure out in the open, the pen must be engineered to be strong enough to withstand extreme weather," he said.

Lu quit shipbuilding to develop the platform in 2003. Despite reaching out to several design teams, success eluded them until they collaborated with scientists from Wuhan University of Technology in Hubei province. A design that passed hydrodynamic testing was finalized in 2020, leading to the platform's debut in July 2021.

A large yellow croaker cultivated in Ningde is displayed. (PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

'Blue grain barn'

The platform was put into use amid China's "blue grain barn" campaign to meet the nation's growing food requirements.

These platforms are now favored by authorities seeking to phase out nearshore aquaculture, which obstructs shipping lanes and harms the ecological balance of mangroves.

China outlined its ambition to build "modern sea farms" like those in Lianjiang, in the No 1 Central Document last year, an important annual policy statement.

In June, six government departments, led by the agriculture ministry, issued guidelines to accelerate deep-sea farm construction and enhance research on cages and the smart equipment necessary for their operation.

The latest No 1 Central Document, released in February, reiterated support for deep-sea aquaculture, urging local officials to maintain a "macro food perspective".

Lin Yinghui, an official with the Ocean and Fishery Bureau in Lianjiang, said traditional aquaculture, where fish are raised in smaller cages nearer to the shore, creates problems such as feed pollution and eutrophication, a process in which surplus nutrients cause dense plant growth, and is not sustainable.

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Environmental degradation has affected the quality of aquatic products and even caused red tides that can wipe out yields.

Lin said in recent years Lianjiang county has promoted ecological aquaculture platforms, so fish farming operations can be gradually shifted farther from shore.

The strong ocean currents support a rich variety of algae and plankton, providing an ideal environment for fish to grow.

The deployment of smart monitoring systems on these platforms enables real-time image transmission to mobile devices, streamlining operations and reducing labor costs.

"The campaign reduces farming density close to the shore, allowing aquatic products such as croakers to grow in a purely natural seawater environment, a practice that improves meat quality and taste," he said.

Contact the writers at lilei@chinadaily.com.cn