News

Scientists explain: we need China for a more sustainable world

Published on
January 11, 2022

We cannot ignore China: it is big, powerful, and wealthy. And scientists from WUR say that we shouldn't want this either in a six-part interview series. Although they too sometimes struggle with the Chinese approach to privacy and personal freedom, "international academic collaboration is essential to tackling major environmental problems: no matter what the politics.” Above all, we can learn a lot from each other.

China has developed enormously in thirty years, and so has the relationship between WUR and Chinese partners. Nico Heerink, professor of Development Economics, remembers how unusual it was when the young scientist Futian Qu joined WUR in 1993. China was just opening then. Since then, Qu has become a top player in Nanjing and the relationship between WUR and Nanjing Agricultural University is stronger than ever.

Nico Heerink and Futian Qu in front of Nanjing Agricultural University in 1995. Photo: Nico Heerink
Nico Heerink and Futian Qu in front of Nanjing Agricultural University in 1995. Photo: Nico Heerink

Are there ever any issues? There are. For example, when Taiwan has to be depicted in a publication. But in general, the collaboration with the highly motivated colleagues from China, who are doing their PhDs in Wageningen in large numbers, is excellent. The scientists from Wageningen are in complete agreement about this: their drive is extraordinary.

Chinese Research Lab

Sometimes, collaborating with Chinese partners appears to mainly benefit China at first. For example, the Sino-Dutch Dairy Development Center (SDDDC) — in which WUR is involved, including the Dairy Campus — has given the Chinese dairy industry a major quality boost following the melamine scandal in 2008. But ultimately WUR benefits just as much from the collaboration, because excellent Chinese PhD students develop knowledge that would otherwise not have been available.

The collaboration is good because we don't compete, but complement each other
Han Zuilhof

China is also "a great research lab,” says Nutrient Management researcher Oene Oenema: it has an insane budget that makes it possible to buy equipment that “we can only dream of in the Netherlands”.

Peanuts and rice are a different matter

“And although we in the Netherlands think we know a lot after a hundred years of experience in crossing plant species, peanuts and rice are different and therefore very interesting for us,” says Professor of Plant Breeding Richard Visser. According to Han Zuilhof – Professor of Organic Chemistry — Chinese and Wageningen scientists complement each other seamlessly in the research into surfaces used in medical testing: “The collaboration with Tianjin is good because we don't compete, but complement each other.” WUR recently discovered a “very cool chemical reaction”, for example, which was further explored by two PhD students from Tianjin and by a postdoc from Wageningen based on the research of one of the Chinese.

Commercial Collaboration

WUR not only has scientific partners in China, it also collaborates with companies. Kees de Koning from the Dairy Campus in Leeuwarden regularly runs courses there, for example, for dairy giants from Yili in Inner Mongolia to Modern Dairy in Anhui Province. For Silke Hemming the link with China is entirely “commercial”. The company Tencent — or the Chinese version of Google — wanted to invest in the Autonomous Greenhouse Challenge when no one in the Netherlands was interested. Meanwhile, the competition has become a worldwide concept and the third edition is in full swing.

Cultural and political differences are sometimes difficult to deal with, but ultimately they are just a side issue

But at its core, it is not about dairy, improved vegetables, autonomous greenhouses, super-sensitive testing methods, economic models, or methods for measuring soil pollution. And the cultural and political differences — which are sometimes difficult to deal with, like having your head displayed on a screen when you commit a traffic offence — are ultimately a side issue. Especially as long as you can discuss it amongst yourselves. Just as we come with a “manual”, our Chinese partners do too.

Richard Visser visits a greenhouse with bell peppers at plant breeding company Shouguang Vegetable Corporation in Weifang, 2018. Photo: Richard Visser
Richard Visser visits a greenhouse with bell peppers at plant breeding company Shouguang Vegetable Corporation in Weifang, 2018. Photo: Richard Visser

The most important thing — so say the Wageningen scientists unanimously — is that we can only achieve a better world together. There is a reason why WUR’s strategic mission is: Finding Answers Together. And as Water Systems & Global Change chair holder Carolien Kroeze says: “International collaboration between scientists is essential to tackling major environmental problems.” Because it is that simple: “We cannot stop global warming without China.”

Is China not outpacing us? “Perhaps they are,” says Richard Visser: “China Agricultural University is right on our heels and the Chinese breeding market is growing, but our focus as scientists is on the long term: making sure there is enough food in the world and producing it in a sustainable way.”