Does China need biotechnology? The answer from China seems to be an emphatic yes. We have only 7% of the world's land, and yet are feeding 22% of the world's population. China's per capita tillable land and per capita consumption of fresh water are both one-fourth those of the world's averages. It is estimated that our population will reach 1.6 billion by 2030 (from 1.3 billion now) and food consumption will reach 650 million tons, compared with present production of 500 million tons. On top of that we are making the transition from a life with just enough food and clothing to being comparatively well-off, and the demand for other farm produce such as meat, fish, eggs and milk, too, will greatly increase. Also, our modernization drive seems likely to drastically decrease the area of tillable land, owing to the demand for land for other uses. And then we must face our increasingly urgent environmental and ecological problems, and the shortage of water that will also seriously constrain further development of China's agriculture. To help face these problems our government has embraced biotechnology.
Of course we came rather late into this field and our work is still in its primary stage. The status quo is still basically "assembling foreign components" and "more following suit than innovation". But China is now quickening her pace in its own research, and the gap between China and the advanced international level will be further shortened. In biotechnology China is hitting the ground running.
The country's "863 Plan", its national high-tech research plan, is paying great attention to biotechnology. Back in September 1997, the national scholastic body the Chinese Society for Agricultural Biotechnology was established with a membership of over 1,500, and a learned periodical at the national level Journal of Agricultural Biotechnology has been initiated. Over 50 key laboratories at the national and ministerial levels have been set up by the Ministry of Agriculture and in the near future a national intermediate test base of transgenic plants will be set up in Jilin Province.
In my next postcard I'll list a few specific Chinese achievements in biotechnology, and in a third I'll describe public reaction to this work.