China’s southernmost province of Hainan is popular with pensioners and sun-seeking holidaymakers for its balmy weather and duty-free shopping. It is also popular with agricultural scientists, thousands of whom descend each year to the island to work at its breeding centers.
About the size of Belgium and located on the same latitude as Hawaii, Hainan is central to China’s plans to build up its seed technology and safeguard food security.
The island has unrivalled natural advantages for seed development given its tropical climate, which is conducive for rapid crop growth, according to Li Xiaoyun, a professor with the China Agricultural University. The central government’s recent decision to develop the island into a free trade zone will also help Hainan attract international talent and establish a global center for tropical agriculture research, he said.
“Seeds are to agriculture what microchips are to computing," Li said in interviews with local media on the sidelines of the Bo’ao Forum earlier this month. “Hainan is extremely advantageous in tropical agriculture research and has accumulated a wealth of experience."
Hainan has a long history as a base for agricultural scientific research.
It is home to China’s largest seed breeding center known as Nanfan Agriculture Silicon Valley, located near Sanya, the island’s most popular tourist destination. More than 20,000 crop varieties, or about 70 percent of the country's new crop varieties, have been cultivated in the past 70 years in Hainan, according to China Daily.
It was in Hainan in 1970 that Yuan Longping, the agronomist dubbed the “father of hybrid rice” first discovered a wild rice species that he subsequently cultivated into high-yielding rice strains.
Breakthroughs by scientists like Yuan have enabled China to record 17 consecutive years of bumper harvests in grain production, with grain output exceeding 650 billion kilograms for six years in a row, official data showed.
Even so, the government has warned that it faces many weak links in germplasm resource protection and breeding technologies, which are critical to safeguarding food security.
The country's seed industry also lacks originality in fundamental research, cutting-edge and core technologies, said Wan Jianmin, vice-president of the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences, according to Xinhua News Agency.
There are more than 5,000 seed companies in China, but they are mainly small in scale and weak in innovation, according to Wan. Their combined research and development investments in 2018 were also much smaller than that of Monsanto, the US agricultural biotechnology company acquired by Bayer in the same year, Wan said.
Hainan will play a crucial role in China’s seed ambitions.
On June 1, 2020, the central government released a master plan for the construction of the Hainan Free Trade Port. Among its list of major pioneering projects is the development of an introduction and transfer center for global animal and germplasm resources and the Nanfan seed breeding base.
Last month, the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs agreed to build a special zone for seed intellectual property right protection and exchange in Nanfan to facilitate innovation. The government also decided to simplify the approval process for import and export license of crops and encourage cooperative research with overseas institutions.
The province is planning to grow its seed industry output value to 50 billion yuan ($7.68 billion) by 2025, according to Hainan Daily.