Monday, August 15, 2005

China Odyssey: Globetrotting engineers ponder China's past and future


Marco Polo first arrived in China in 1275 A.D. I arrived in the summer of 2004 and doubt that Marco Polo was any more amazed. This journey profoundly impressed me, not so much as a tourist but as an agricultural and biological engineer. I saw sustainability in action in competition with a rapidly growing economy; the effect of population density on energy, environment, food production, and transportation; and the critical importance of agricultural and biological engineering to the future of our planet.

My 16-day trip included eight days of touring: from the Great Wall near Beijing to the ancient Silk Road in Xian to a modern city of skyscrapers, Shanghai. I tramped large cities, major tourist stops, university campuses, and several hundred miles of countryside, albeit never far from a major city. I saw a race between a people striving to obtain a higher standard of living and their ability to sustain it. For the last eight days, I was a guest of the College of Biosystems Engineering and Food Science, Zhejiang University, Hangzhou, where hospitality abounds.

" ... the national bird [of China] is the construction crane," comments Loewer. Above: Ever-ongoing construction in the city center of Xian.

There is little in the plant or animal kingdom that the Chinese can't tastefully prepare as a food source - food engineering in action! And it is true: the national bird is the construction crane. But can rapid economic growth coupled with an increasing population be sustained in the long run?

I am no expert - only a first-time-in-town Marco Polo. But ASABE members have had extensive experiences in China; what do they think? And what about those who were born, raised, educated, and have leadership roles in agricultural and biological engineering in China?

In this, the first of occasional features with travel narrative and reflection as theme, the American analysis is given by two adventuring "Marco Polos" like myself. Then, the other side of the yen: the Chinese perspective by three "homegrown" analysts.

Norm Scott

Former ASAE president Norm Scott has made 18 trips to China seeing many changes that will impact sustainability. He believes agricultural and biological engineers must play an increasing role if China is to raise her standard of living while improving its natural environment.

"Air quality and smog are extremely bad at times, especially in cities where a huge amount of coal is burned," Scott says. "Some restrictions are now coming into play, and China is moving to nuclear and, perhaps, natural gas.

"Untreated point and nonpoint sources of water discharges have existed too long. Industrial, agricultural, and municipal resources have all been contributors. China is currently being challenged to implement treatment processes, and its version of the Environmental Protection Agency is getting stronger."

Scott is intrigued by China's "agro-eco villages," designed to create an integrated energy and living environment with an agricultural focus. "These villages use waste to produce methane mostly for cooking and some heating with the possibility for conversion to electricity. The heating and electrical component is provided centrally to the village using a combined heat-and-power approach. The agro-eco village is where our profession could play an important role, but there are many forces at work that will increase the importance of our profession in China."

Bill Stout

ASABE member and former CIGR president Bill Stout attended the October 2004 CIGR International Agricultural Engineering Conference in Beijing.

"The Chinese national economic growth rate is about 9 percent per year and has been growing at this high rate for quite a few years," says Stout. "Impressive office skyscrapers, apartments, and shopping malls offer a spectacular variety. Superhighways connect many of the major cities. However, while traveling into deeply rural areas by train, I observed farmers tilling the soil with water buffalo and primitive implements. Fields are small, averaging only a fraction of a hectare. Chinese leaders are well aware of the problems and have plans to strengthen the farm economy. Agricultural engineers will have a major role to play.

"Air quality and smog are extremely bad at times, especially in cities where a huge amount of coal is burned," says Norm Scott. Loewer captures the haze on his digital canvas: a typical off-to- work morning of vehicular travel and combustion on a side street in Xian.

"While I cannot speak for all Chinese universities, the three agricultural engineering departments I have visited are better funded than many American counterparts, with well-equipped laboratories and computer facilities with cutting-edge research underway. Great emphasis is placed on the English language. My guest lectures were all in English with no interpreters, and the student groups seemed to understand. The culture does not encourage student questioning of professors and interaction is limited, but with prodding we achieved a reasonable level of discussion.

"I think China will become the world's economic leader in the next few decades, displacing the United States and Europe. They are well on their way to achieving that goal. With more emphasis on rural development, including expanded input from agricultural engineers, I see no reason for their economy to stop growing at a rapid pace.

"My message to American agricultural engineers: if you are not already working with our Chinese colleagues, by all means do so. They are eager to work with you, and you can develop a mutually beneficial collaborative relationship. Both sides will be stronger as a result."

Yibin Ying

ASABE member Yibin Ying is executive associate dean of the College of Biosystems Engineering and Food Science at Zhejiang University. He has spent considerable time in the United States sharing a research interest in biosensors.

"In China," says Ying, "agricultural engineering is classified as a Class 1 discipline under an engineering branch. It contains four Class 2 disciplines: agricultural mechanization, water and construction engineering, bioenvironmental and energy engineering, agricultural electrification and automation - four undergraduate majors in agricultural engineering. There are more than 70 universities with agricultural engineering colleges or departments. Thirteen offer a Ph.D., 11 have postdoctoral programs, and five Class 2 disciplines in four universities are listed as national key disciplines.

"The realization of agricultural mechanization, electrification, hybridization, and chemicalization in the past century laid the foundation for the rapid development of agriculture. Since the late 1970s, there has been rapid development in the fields of biotechnology, computing and information technology, new energy resources, and material sciences. Agricultural engineering in China entered a new era as a result of four major trends: improvement and reform of agricultural engineering curriculum, broadening scope of research, acceleration of research and extension of application technologies, and development of research and teaching dependent on the support of other related sciences and technologies.

"There has been significant change in the development of the social economy and science and technology. Thus, the position, scope, and clients of agricultural engineering curriculums have also changed significantly. The modern agricultural engineering discipline not only serves production and processing, but it also relates to bioproduction and bioprocessing. The end result: our program is becoming one of basic science, and engineering disciplines need to support the continuous development of our country.

"Every two years, the Agricultural Engineering Society in China holds a national forum on the reform of the agricultural engineering discipline. In 2002, the forum was renamed 'Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering.' An influencing factor was what was happening elsewhere in the world regarding agricultural engineering.

"Agricultural engineering is becoming multidisciplinary by its emerging first into biology and then into other new technologies. Research and extension of application technologies are accelerating. Application technologies play an important role in assisting modern agricultural businesses, developing modern agricultural communities, and enhancing the agricultural economy."

Yun Zhao

Yun Zhao is a leader of the Chinese Society of Agricultural Engineers and president of Zhejiang Sci-Tech University. His campus was filled with visitors and recent graduates with no shortage of social activities on the day of my interview. Added to this was massive ongoing construction. Zhejiang Sci-Tech University occupies a new campus, with over 600,000 m^sup 2^ (6.5 million ft^sup 2^) of space.

"The role of engineers depends on the education they can obtain from the college or university," says Zhao. "There are two important things in undergraduate programs: to give students a good foundation and broad knowledge that includes both arts and sciences. What students take from a university are the tools that create an environment sufficient to make them ready for their continuing education after graduation. The second is that a university should offer the c\urriculum that reflects the major tasks and problems in the future work of agricultural and biological engineers, an example being the continuous development of post-harvest processing.

"At the same time, there is also the need in China for agricultural engineers to have the basic ability for research and development of agricultural equipment.

"There is a Chinese saying, 'One's contribution makes one's position.' Compared to other disciplines, Chinese experts in agricultural engineering have not contributed enough to the development of agriculture in China for the past several years. Some problems should have been solved, but have not, and this has resulted in not enough support from the government. In comparison, some disciplines, such as breeding science, have obtained more support in funding and higher ranks in national research needs. Considering the limited cultivable land per person and limited natural resources (except human resources), we must ensure the availability of food and clothing for the world's most populous country. Then we are faced with needs for better food and clothing, requiring more advanced science and engineering.

"Large-scale agricultural production is found mainly in countries in North America, Europe, and Australia, whereas small-scale agriculture is found mostly in Asia and Africa. Therefore, there are many differences in agricultural products and equipment, depending on the stage of development. Yet we have common concerns, and we can cooperate to work on the need for continuous agricultural development and full use of agricultural resources."

Yanbin Li

Yanbin Li, a University of Arkansas professor, grew up in China where he obtained an undergraduate degree. He left China in 1983 for a University of Nebraska-Lincoln ag engineering M.S. and Penn State University Ph.D. "At that time," says Li, "the major tasks for Chinese agricultural engineers were agricultural mechanization and agricultural electrification with the initiation of agricultural energy resources and food processing engineering."

"For the past decade, I traveled to China almost every year to give a short lecture or seminar or to attend an international meeting. But this last four-month teaching stay made me realize the changes in agricultural engineering. Agricultural engineering is now a major university department and covers all applications of engineering to biology and agriculture.

Zhejiang Sci-Tech University President Yun Zhao (left) and Yanbin Li (right) flank Loewer on a stroll through the expansive new campus.

"The number of agricultural engineering students in China graduating in 2004 numbered more than 11,000 with B.S. degrees, 1,200 with M.S. degrees, and 80 with Ph.D.s, and enrollment is increasing every year. China is currently producing four times the number of agricultural and biological engineers as the United States. There are a lot of exchange activities between China and other countries, with more than 427,000 Chinese studying or doing research overseas, and more than 25,000 returned to China in 2004.

"With a population of 1.3 billion, the life support system is a top issue in the society. Population keeps increasing, and resources keep decreasing. The Chinese have more and more waste to manage and more and more pollution problems. Agricultural and biological engineering has a unique role in modernizing our current life support system and in envisioning our future life support system. In fact, this is the most important issue on our planet for next century. Agricultural and biological engineers in China have a great opportunity to make contributions to the development of the national economy and the whole society.

"Chinese agricultural and biological engineers have learned a lot from developed countries in the past 20 years, but they will face their own unique challenges due to the specific features of agriculture and the economy in China, as well as Chinese culture. The agricultural population in China is estimated at 800 million, but more and more are immigrating to urban areas. This results in a shortage of human resources and educated people in remote areas. Second, the economy of remote farming regions is far behind that of the coastal regions, presenting a highly unbalanced agricultural system. Third, the economy has been growing continuously. Annual growth in GDP exceeded 8 percent for the past 20 years, and was 9.1 percent last year.

Above, the stone and earth Great Wall in the north - an amazing 2,414 km (1,500 mile) long - was built in the third century as a defense against intruders. Today, the welcome mat is out, and airports are bustling with student/academic travel oportunities. "There are a lot of exchange activities between China and other countries, with more than 427,000 Chinese studying or doing research overseas, and more than 25,000 returned to China in 2004," says Lanbin Li.

China, no longer isolationist, remains a constant contrast in old world and new. Loewer stands amidst the bustle of the main shopping area of busy Shanghai's high-end department stores.

"World Bank President, James Wolfensohn, says, 'The Chinese have gained achievements in only 20 years that would take many other countries two centuries to accomplish.' Agricultural and biological engineers must work in a very dynamic situation with a lot of new problems to solve in a very short time, and there are no examples to follow in many cases. But challenge is opportunity. China needs not only to learn more from the developed countries, but also needs to incorporate unique features into its educational system and associated applications based on the situation in China. Chinese engineers need not only to reform their own discipline, but to work closely with people in other disciplines in research, education, and extension. China provides a great opportunity for agricultural and biological engineers in China, in the United States, and throughout the world. If we look at what agricultural and biological engineers can do in China, we can better understand the future needs of our world and our profession's role in it."

"I did not tell half of what I saw"

When Marco Polo returned, few believed his stories of the riches he found in Asia, though his souvenirs made him famous. Near death, a priest asked if he'd like to confess some false tales. Not recanting, his purported last words were, "I did not tell half of what I saw."

In looking back at my experience in China, I see no conflict between what I saw and the opinions of those interviewed - the American as well as the Chinese perspectives on China. I've seen agricultural and biological engineers in the United States and Canada address a wide range of problems using a variety of technologies depending on the value of the end product. Using crop production as an example, a lot more technology and investment per unit area can be applied to the production of high-value horticultural crops than to non-irrigated grain production.

But what if the investment is literally in life support systems where the final product is the sustainability of human life itself at an increasing standard of quality? I see this as the dominant issue in China. And I see the people of China turning increasingly to agricultural and biological engineers to provide technological solutions to the challenges that face them. In a shrinking world, the problems of China become those of the rest of the world, whether those problems manifest themselves as technological, economic, or political. Indeed, these are going to be exciting times for the world in general and for our profession in particular. I imagine that Marco Polo would have thought the same thing.

ASABE president Otto J. Loewer is director and professor at the University of Arkansas Economic Development Institute, 226 Engineering Hall, Fayetteville, AR 72701 USA; 479-575-57 18, fax 479- 575-2412,

Copyright American Society of Agricultural Engineers Aug 2005


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