Planting the seeds of future success in desert areas

2021-01-18 12:05:02

A rural resident harvests wild onion in a sunlit greenhouse. The sand-fixing plant has brought profit to locals. [Photo/Xinhua] Ye Changlian, a businessman from Northwest China, has been planting Allium mongolicum, an Asian variety of wild onion, for more than a decade. With Chinese researchers' support, this desert plant not only benefits local ecology but also helps to boost the economy. Ye lives in Minqin county of Gansu province. Known as "sand town", the county is an artificial oasis located between Badain Jaran and Tengger, two large deserts in China covering 85,000 square kilometers in total. In the past, it was difficult for local people to earn a living there due to the harsh environment. Things have changed since a research team from the Gansu Desert Control Research Institute arrived. Based in Minqin for more than 60 years, the team has found ways for local people to reclaim land from the desert. Yan Zizhu, a researcher at the institute, has long paid attention to the wild onion, which is widely distributed in arid desert areas in northern China. Because of its value as a food source and sand-fixing function, Yan believes that cultivating the onion can help the county develop more water-efficient industries, and therefore adjust the industrial structure and restore the ecosystem. Yan's team has been studying the onion in Minqin since 1999.Through a series of complex experiments, they found how to artificially plant Allium mongolicum and raise its productivity. Guided by the planting technology of Yan's team, Ye has become one of the country's leading growers. In 2019, his sales revenue for Allium mongolicum was over 20 million yuan ($3 million), helping hundreds of local people increase their income. "The technical support from the experts has helped us realize our dreams of making more money and living a better life," Ye says. Minqin has suffered sandstorms for decades. Fortunately, with innovative planting technologies, researchers are helping such areas to restore their ecosystems, explore new ways of combating desertification and at the same time increase the income of local villagers. Ma Quanlin, deputy director of the institute, says after years of research, the team has found a group of desert plants suitable for Minqin's climate. They have a higher survival rate and can be grown on a large scale, according to Ma. [Photo/Xinhua] Wild Agriophyllum squarrosum, also called wild sand rice, is another sand-fixing plant and natural food. In 2016, the institute began to study the characteristics of wild sand rice. "The sand rice will sometimes be dormant in the soil. So it is very important to stimulate the germination of the seed," says Wei Linyuan, a senior specialist from the team. Despite initial failures caused by frost and other factors, Wei and her colleagues finally developed a system of planting that can stimulate the germination of the seed, make it grow faster and improve its productivity. They have also tried to make cakes, bread and noodles by using sand rice. "We hope the local government will support the promotion of the plant cultivation and the extension of the food-processing chain in Minqin," Wei says. "China has successfully achieved ecological and economic balance by using science and technology to control desertification in areas like Minqin, and such experience is useful in helping other countries fight desertification," Ma says.