My father has spent nearly his whole life working with seeds: planting them, testing them, selling them — he’s a breeder through and through.
That may seem like a small thing, and certainly the seeds themselves are, but his life and chosen industry are an indispensable part of modern Chinese history. His story is a microcosm of the changes that have swept through China over the past 70 years, transforming a nation once bent on self-sufficiency into an increasingly modern, mechanized node in a broader global marketplace.
China’s efforts to develop its seed industry can be divided into four major stages. During the first stage, roughly from the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 to the advent of “reform and opening-up” in the late 1970s, the government encouraged farmers and communes to choose, breed, and preserve their own seeds. When my father was growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, the work of developing and planting seeds belonged to the people’s communes.
That changed beginning in the second stage, which lasted from 1979 to 1999. Increased efficiency was the order of the day. Our local commune dissolved in 1983, and management of the land was contracted to individual households. Seeding shifted to regional distributors focused on specialized production, mechanized processing, and standardized quality. Entire counties might sow the same varieties.
Villagers turn in grain at the public depot in Yuncheng, Shanxi province, 1990s. Gao Zhiyong/Yuncheng News
In the northeastern agricultural powerhouse of Heilongjiang, my hometown, the main crops under cultivation in the 1990s were soybeans, wheat, and corn. My father primarily dealt in soybean seeds. In a given year, more than half a million kilograms of these seeds could pass through his hands. He bred them, marketed them, and sold them to his clients — mostly state-run seed companies. His clients then guided farmers through the rest of the process. That’s not the only way those state-owned enterprise workers affected my life: They’re the ones who convinced my parents to push me to do better in school, so I could one day leave the countryside.
Their advice worked, until it didn’t. I tested into an agricultural university, majored in agronomy and settled down in Beijing, all of which, you could argue, counted as leaving the countryside. Yet I’m still in the same business as my father. And while my home may be in the city, my life is still tied to China’s farms.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. As the new millennium dawned, my family business continued to blossom, albeit in increasingly changed circumstances. China passed its Seed Law in 2000, opening the floodgates of marketization on the seed industry and ushering in its third stage. State-run seed monopolies’ grips began to loosen, and all those state enterprise workers I grew up around suddenly started founding their own seed companies.
Nor was that the only change underway. After China’s accession to the World Trade Organization in 2001, the country proactively downsized its soybean production. Most think of WTO membership through the lens of Chinese exports, but it also meant an increase in imports in some sectors. Soybeans require large tracts of land to grow, and fertile land is not something China has in abundance. It was cheaper and more efficient to import from the U.S., even if it meant farmers would have to weather some short-term pain.
Sun Xiucai’s father at work in rural Heilongjiang province, 2017. From @绿主张TALA on Weibo
Every year since China liberalized its soybean trade, imports have gone up. They’re currently five times the total domestic production. Most of these imports consist of genetically modified soybeans for animal feed, while domestically produced variants are used for soy products such as milk. Many once-thriving processing factories have closed.
Through it all, my father fought to keep his business afloat. With soybeans out, and market competition and Heilongjiang’s long winters limiting the viability of emerging cash crops like cucumber and lettuce, he turned toward a different crop: hybrid corn.
It’s arduous work. Fresh corn can seem so simple, but sowing new crops is a tall order. In addition to finding vast tracts of land, you must select the right male flowers for pollinating. The different growth rates of differing plants force growers to rely on manual emasculation, or the removal of pollen-containing anthers from certain flowers to limit their reproduction.
I’ll never forget the days I spent picking seeds. That was our job after the harvest each year, when our house would be filled with them: We had to hand-pick a sack of spotted green beans, peas, and mixed corn seeds before we could go out and play. It felt like time had slowed to a stop.
Nowadays, village kids are off the hook: Farmers keep a smaller seed stock, and many seed companies have closed. Like many other industries in China, the seed industry has developed at a breakneck speed in the last decade. In the new market economy, the principle of “get big or get out” has prevailed; market concentration has risen; and farming companies have all set their sights on becoming bigger and stronger.
Policymakers have supported this trend. In 2011, the State Council, China’s Cabinet, helped usher in the fourth stage of China’s seed industry with its “Suggestions on Accelerating the Development of a Modern Crop Seed Industry.” Two years later, in 2013, the Ministry of Agriculture issued new rules that significantly raised the financial and capital requirements for entering the seed business.
In 2011, China had more than 8,700 seed firms. By 2014, that number was at just 5,000. In both of the past two years, just 50 firms controlled more than 30% of China’s seed market, and that number is expected to rise as agribusiness mergers become more commonplace.
That’s putting a lot of pressure on small- and medium-sized seed businesses like the one my father has spent decades running. Adding to the challenges, workers in the country’s depopulated northeastern regions have grown scarcer and pricier to hire. As the seed production industry shifts westward toward the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region and Gansu province, my hometown’s seed business has waned, and my father is nearing retirement.
But that isn’t the end of my family’s seeding story.
In 2006, I graduated with a master’s degree from Northeast Agricultural University. After several years spent marketing seeds to foreign and domestic clients, I’ve found myself drawn back to breeding technologies, particularly the issue of sustainability. While living in Beijing, I became involved with two small organic farms, helping them weed and deliver orders to clients. Later, I partnered with some relatives still sustainably growing soybeans in Heilongjiang, which I then made into tofu and soymilk to sell in Beijing markets. For the past two years, I’ve shifted focus on microbes and fertilizers, trying to reduce fertilizer use without affecting output.
In this era of mechanized production and market concentration I believe small farmers still bring something unique to the table. There are two sides to everything: The increase of market concentration might bring about economies of scale, but individual farmers can safeguard the diversity of both seeds and the farming industry as a whole.
A view of seeds on display at an event in Beijing, 2019. From @北京农夫市集 on Weibo
Agricultural mechanization and specialization need not estrange man and the earth. I often think of the words of Teresa Zhang, founder of God’s Grace Garden, one of the earliest organic farms in Beijing: “Farming is the art of cooperation between man and nature.” If heaven bids you harvest, then you harvest; if it does not, then you acquiesce. There’s a precondition, though. You have to work hard: You have to study and understand nature in order to work with her.
I used to ruminate on why the Chinese word for agronomist is “agricultural artist” and not something more prosaic like “farming technician,” but now I understand. The land is a canvas on which we scribble and paint. We create like any other artist: Each crop can be a work of art.
Thinking on it now, I may have been fated to work in this field all along, the seeds of my current life having been planted in my heart at a young age, if you’ll pardon the expression. What it will grow into, though, remains unclear: perhaps an oak, perhaps a dandelion, or maybe even a soybean.
This article is based on a series of pieces published by FOODTHINK. It has been edited for length and clarity, and is republished here with permission.
Translator: Katherine Tse; editors: Cai Yineng and Kilian O’Donnell; portrait artist: Zhang Zeqin.
(Header image: A man holds soybeans in Cixi, Zhejiang province, 2018. Zhang Peijian/People Visual)