Academically collaborating with Chinese partners is extremely interesting as they come from one of the biggest and most influential countries in the world. Yet it also raises questions. In this six-part interview series we are going to discover the nature of that collaboration and how it benefits the partners in both Wageningen and China. Part 3: Carolien Kroeze, chair of the Water Systems and Global Change Group and director of the Wageningen Institute for Environment and Climate Research (WIMEK) and Oene Oenema, nutrient management expert, about the need to work together to achieve the global Sustainable Development Goals.
You both work intensively with Chinese colleagues. What’s that like?
Carolien Kroeze: “There are ninety PhD candidates in the Chinese-Dutch Agricultural Green Development (AGD) programme; half of them will receive their PhD from WUR and the other half from China Agricultural University (CAU). WUR and CAU have worked together for more than thirty years on all sorts of sustainability issues, ranging from plants to animal husbandry, from soil to water and air, and from healthy food to a healthy living environment. The central question is how we can sustainably guarantee food security.”
Oenema: “I’ve been going to China for more than twenty years. Although I’m now retired, I still supervise Chinese PhD candidates here in Wageningen. For the past three years I’ve held a parttime appointment as a professor occupying an endowed chair at CAU. We’ve developed a special connection based on mutual interests in our professional fields and friendship.”
Couldn’t this collaboration have occurred just as easily with another country
Kroeze: “Perhaps. But China is a very interesting country with respect to the effects of food production and the effects of manure and artificial fertiliser on water quality and sustainability. The Chinese lowland (North China Plain, the region that also includes Beijing, ed.) resembles the Netherlands in many ways: flat, densely populated and home to intensive agriculture. Therefore the challenges created by the consequences of using land too intensively on the quality of water and air are fairly similar.”
Why is that so interesting?
Oenema: “Because we can strengthen each other. China is a tremendous test bed — a living lab — for research. Not only because the low-lying land there geographically resembles the Netherlands, but also because China is developing at a killing pace and is very diverse. We have a lot of knowledge here at WUR, but in the area of technology — measuring equipment, for example — China is sometimes far ahead of us: something we can only dream of.”
Oenema: “Yes. For example, the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) and partners in the US have joined forces and developed an innovative laser spectroscope that lets you detect the sources of pollution in soil. Up to 50 times a second, this piece of equipment detects the isotopes of nitrous oxide — a greenhouse gas — in soil emissions, thus providing information about the source: artificial fertiliser, animal manure or the soil itself. Even before they knew exactly how such a spectroscope could contribute to the research, CAS commissioned a company to manufacture it no matter how many millions it cost. That’s inconceivable in the Netherlands. The Chinese are ambitious; they’re determined to rank among the absolute world top.”
Who profits the most from this collaboration with Chinese partners: us or them?
Oenema (appointed at CAU for three months a year as a coach for PhD candidates and teachers): “We supplement each other. Chinese universities are very good at measuring and strong in the field of monodisciplinary science. In turn, we teach them to translate their measuring data into practical knowledge; for example, what the data could mean for sustainable food production. I also teach the scientists there about multidisciplinary thinking, which means thinking beyond the borders of scientific areas. The Chinese are used to focusing on one area, such as water quality. But if you want to work towards a solution, you also need the air quality experts and colleagues from chemistry and spatial planning.”
You’re very enthusiastic about the unbridled ambition of the Chinese, but that only works well if it’s top-down, right?
Kroeze: “China is indeed a society in which top-down is the standard, whereas we in the Netherlands are used to seeking compromises.” Oenema: “When I have a beer with colleagues in China, I hear them complaining about their lack of influence on the work floor.”
Does China use that opportunism sustainably? Can’t progress quickly result in pollution?
Kroeze: “In that respect, there’s still an enormous divide within China between the city and the countryside. The countryside is often characterised by poverty and pollution, whereas the cities have created the most innovative and sustainable solutions. Sewerage purification in new cities, for example, already has the latest technological developments. True, this progress is now available only to a relatively small share of the population, but that’s still an enormous number of people in China. And as with all developments there, the tempo is very high; this also applies to sustainability.”
Oenema: “China wants to move forward, no matter what. Fusuo Zhang, one of the most important professors at China Agricultural University plus an honorary doctor at WUR, is enormously driven with regard to a green agenda, and he’s not afraid to switch projects if a better alternative comes up during his career. He enjoys his freedom. We’re much more cautious here with our bookkeeper’s mentality of ‘stick to the plan’.”
To what extent does China focus on the international Sustainable Development Goals?
Kroeze: “China is an important global player. Of course, pollution is increasing there, but we can also see fast improvements in several areas. In the past few years, the Chinese government has heavily invested in water purification. Also, China has already contributed to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for 2030 by implementing projects such as the ‘Chinese agriculture green development’: a national strategy that includes actions as a ‘zero growth plan’ for the use of fertilisers and pesticides and soil-water-air quality control.
But more has to be done. We only have nine years left to realise the UN SDGs. Without China, we won’t be able to put a stop to global warming. It’s such a large country where so very many people live, where so much food is produced and where so many products are made for international use. A more sustainable China has global benefits. The joint PhD-programme we have with China Agricultural University helps us realise those ambitious goals.”
Collaboration despite the increasing international concerns about the national policies?
Kroeze: “Nowadays, I’m often asked why I collaborate with Chinese partners and then I explain that it’s only with them — and with the United States, Russia and other world powers — that we can deal with the major sustainability challenges facing us in the areas of climate, biodiversity and food and water security. International collaboration at the scientific level is essential.
It’s no different now than it was before. I often think about the challenges of acid rain in Europe in the 1980s. At that time international relations were very strained. Nevertheless, academics from the United States, Russia and many other countries worked together on the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA). This formed the basis of the European air quality policy, which means that we no longer have acid rain. Luckily, we don’t face political tensions now like we did 40 years ago, but the crux of the matter remains: scientists need one another to tackle large environmental problems.”