Lin Zhanxi from Fujian Agriculture and Forestry University checks mushrooms cultivated on chopped Juncao in Fuzhou, southeast China's Fujian Province, Nov. 2, 2018. (Xinhua/Wei Peiquan)
BEIJING, Nov. 16 (Xinhua) — Lawandi Ibrahim Datti betrayed a sense of pride as he introduced the Juncao demonstration center established in his home country Nigeria to his colleagues. As a PhD student studying Juncao technology in east China’s Fujian Province for more than a decade, Datti saw an opportunity to change his country’s rural landscape caught in a vicious cycle of land degradation and poverty.
Juncao, which is famed as “magic grass”, is two Chinese characters meaning “mushroom” and “grass”. The particular breed of grass was discovered by Chinese scientists to be an economical and environment-friendly substitute for timber to be used as substrate for growing mushrooms.
“Juncao technology helps my country with food security, animal feed and poverty eradication,” Datti said. “It is a good initiative by President Xi Jinping.”
SUPPORT FROM XI
In the mid-1980s, when Xi Jinping started working in Fujian as a local government official, he spent considerable energy for rural development and poverty alleviation in the province.
The booming mushroom business was then lucrative in Fujian’s rural areas. The success of mushroom farming, however, was threatening the future of the industry itself. The felling of trees on a large scale by local farmers for fungi substrate led to deforestation, which in turn dented economic benefits.
A potential solution, Xi discovered, could be found in research being conducted in Fujian on a group of wild grasses.
The research was led by Lin Zhanxi, an agricultural scientist in Fujian and none other than the inventor of Juncao technology. Thirty-four years ago, Lin selected the grass species to replace timber as a substrate for growing mushrooms and this saved vast tracts of natural forest.
While Lin’s study had yielded preliminary results, he was frustrated by the lack of funding for a designated Juncao laboratory to further technological advancement.
Holding on to the last shred of hope, the scientist penned a letter in 2001 to express the urgent need for the local government’s endorsement. His plea was met with the attention and support of Xi Jinping, then governor of Fujian Province.
“Because of Xi’s assistance, we would build the Juncao science laboratory, the first of its kind in Fujian Province, the country and the world,” Lin said. “Only then could we proceed with our work.”
After decades of continuous experiments, Lin has developed 45 varieties of Juncao, which can be used to cultivate 55 mushroom species. Lin and his team have also been able to use the grass as livestock forage, as well as for environmental rehabilitation and development of new materials.
PUSH FOR NATIONWIDE APPLICATION
Endorsed by Xi, Juncao technology was included in 1997 in a regional-pairing initiative to help tackle poverty in Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region.
In Xihaigu of Ningxia, then a barren and poverty-stricken land in northwest China, the first 27 farmers to join the Juncao program quickly doubled their incomes. Ten years later, there were 17,500 Juncao farmers across the region, each adding more than 700 U.S. dollars to their annual income.
“Xi’s initiative offered fresh opportunities for the edible mushroom industry in Ningxia,” said Qi Dengrong, head of Fujian-Ningxia Agricultural Science and Technology Demonstration Park in Ningxia’s county of Pengyang. “And the rise of Juncao industry has put in motion the local agricultural circular economy.”
Over the past two decades, the agricultural technology has been widely promoted at home through China’s poverty alleviation projects in areas including Xinjiang Uygur, Tibet and Ningxia Hui autonomous regions.
So far, more than 500 counties across China have participated in planting Juncao. The grass significantly lowered farming costs, and reduced annual tree clearing by 20 million cubic meters in the country.
Much like the way it revived millions of farmers’ lives, the grass transformed once bleak landscapes. In Ulan Buh Desert, which has been encroaching the upper reaches of the Yellow River, a pilot experiment showed that the tenacious grass could survive in the arid terrain and turned the sand dunes into oasis.
Chinese scientists have envisioned a greater plan for a 1,000-km-long green barrier of Juncao along the country’s second-longest river by 2021 to treat the heavily eroded land and protect it from invasion by sand.
PLANTING SEEDS OF HOPE WORLDWIDE
“I did go to Fujian Province. I met my then colleague Governor Xi Jinping,” said Peti Lafanama, former governor of Papua New Guinea’s Eastern Highlands Province. “I think the President has a heart for the people.”
The meeting Lafanama referred to took place in 2000, where Xi helped launch a pilot Juncao project to improve the lives of locals in the impoverished country.
In November 2018, when Xi visited this country as Chinese president, the grass was expected to lift 30,000 local people out of poverty in the next five years. During his visit, the two countries signed another aid project using the grass technology, a day ahead of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Leaders’ Meeting scheduled in Papua New Guinea.
Just one year before Xi’s visit, the yield of the grass in Papua New Guinea set a world record of 854 tonnes per hectare. The harvest per hectare can feed 400-500 sheep or help grow 100 tonnes of fresh mushrooms.
As an affordable and accessible way to stimulate the agricultural industry, Juncao technology has now been disseminated to 106 countries through training programs or on-site demonstrations.
In a meeting on Juncao technology held at the UN headquarters in 2019, then UN General Assembly President Maria Fernanda Espinosa Garces said that the herbaceous plant contributes to poverty eradication, clean energy, gender equality and biodiversity preservation.
“The Juncao technology is emblematic of the China’s Belt and Road Initiative,” Espinosa said. “It supports the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.”