From Dawn to Dawn: China's Journey to Agricultural Self-Sufficiency

Book review: From Dawn to Dawn: China's Journey to Agricultural Self-Sufficiency.
T. C. Tso., Inc., Bangor, ME. 2010. $18.95. 260 pp. ISBN 9781609101206.

By M. B. Kirkham and G. H. Liang (

FROM DAWN TO DAWN: China's Journey to Agricultural Self-SufficiencyAny scientist involved in agricultural research should read From Dawn to Dawn: China's Journey to Agricultural Self-Sufficiency, which documents how a country (China) has become self-sufficient in agricultural production.

Dr. Tso, a native of China who spent his career working for the USDA, describes the historical development of agriculture in China from its isolated period (1949–1972) through the dynamic 10-year period that started in 1974, when the first exchanges of agricultural delegations between the United States and China began, up to the mid-1980s, when China had transformed its agricultural production.

Dr. Tso, a naturalized American citizen, was born in China in 1917 and received a Ph.D. in 1950 from Pennsylvania State University. He became a federal agency research scientist (in plant physiology) in 1952, and in 1984, he joined the National Program Staff of the Agricultural Research Service (ARS) of the USDA.

The first opening of modern China to the West began in 1971, when Henry Kissinger, the national security advisor to President Richard Nixon, made a secret trip to Beijing. In 1972, President Nixon visited China. President Nixon and Chairman Mao agreed in 1973 to open the door for U.S.–China scientific exchanges. As Dr. Tso notes, “In 1974, China was still in the midst of the Cultural Revolution that started in 1966. The Chinese higher education system was totally closed and most Chinese intellectuals were sent to the country side ‘to learn from the peasants.

The 10-member U.S. agricultural science delegation, led by Dr. Sterling Wortman, visited China for four weeks during September and October” (p. 32). On the team was Dr. Norman Borlaug, called the Father of the Green Revolution, and Dr. Tso reports Dr. Borlaug's reminiscences about his 1974 trip to China (p. 32–34). Borlaug had won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 for his work on developing high-yielding, semidwarf wheat plants in Mexico.

As Dr. Tso relates, “In the early 1940s, most of the population of Mexico suffered from poor nutrition or even hunger. That situation generated the establishment of a Cooperative Agricultural Program by the Rockefeller Foundation in cooperation with the Mexican government.

In 1943, a team of dedicated scientists was assigned to this special project, with the aim ‘to develop improved plant varieties, especially corn and wheat, and to explore issues of soil improvement and crop management.’

The result was the development of high-yielding wheat varieties, which transformed Mexico from near starvation to self-sufficiency. These new varieties, with a wide range of ecologic adaptation and a broad spectrum of disease resistance, not only were valuable in increasing wheat production in Mexico and neighboring countries in the late 1950s but were even more valuable when introduced into Pakistan, India, Turkey, Iran, and other countries in the 1960s and 1970s.” (p. 3–4). (The center organized in Mexico is now called the Centro Internacional de Mejoramiento de MaĆ­z y Trigo [CIMMYT] and is part of the Consultative Group of International Agricultural Research [CGIAR].

As of 2010, there are 15 CGIAR centers located in Benin, Colombia, India, Indonesia, Italy, Kenya (two centers), Malaysia, Mexico, Nigeria, Peru, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Syria, and Washington, DC.) During this time (early 1940s to 1949), China was engaged in civil wars.

In 1949, Mao took over (called the “liberation”), which resulted in the years of isolation until Kissinger made his secret trip to Beijing. Dr. Tso reports that the “liberation was seen as a revolution to free people from hunger, social injustice, and corruption and to improve the population's education, welfare, and livelihood.

The time-honored Chinese philosophy is ‘Food is the master of all people.’ Every dynasty or ruler with a plan for establishing national stability follows this philosophy” (p. 8). However, the restructuring of rural society was based on the USSR model. “In the general area of scientific research on agricultural production, there was obvious influence from the Soviet Union—‘learn from our Big Brother USSR’—such as the commune system, the agricultural education system, and the teaching of Lysenkoism. The commune system in the Soviet Union and in China did not work well at all” (p. 8).

China's isolation prevented it from participating in the Green Revolution. While Mexico, India, and Pakistan were experiencing a “Green Wheat Revolution,” people in China, which was following the USSR communistic agricultural plan, were going hungry. Dr. Tso experienced suffering and hunger in China before he came to the United States to pursue his doctorate.

No cooperative agricultural program formed in China, as it did in Mexico (CIMMYT). A turning point came in June 1977, when Wan Li became the First Party Secretary in Anhui Province. “Wan agreed and supported the initially small experiment, or trial, of the so-called self-responsibility system in a small area of southern Anhui district. It soon became obvious that the farmers liked it, and it spread fast as wildfire without any active government promotion… .

Other provinces and regions, such as Sichuan, Henan, Nei Mongolia, and Guizhow, soon followed without any government promotion. This self-responsibility system was the opposite of the officially supported but still weakening commune system… . Wan's vision, courage, and wisdom resulted in turning the total agricultural production situation around in China” (p. 23–24).

Between 1977 and 2005, Dr. Tso visited China 116 times. He was on teams that have made recommendations to the Chinese on how to improve agricultural production. In his book, Dr. Tso documents these teams' recommendations. Emphasis was placed on the use of fertilizer, and in 1950, China imported three nitrogen fertilizer plants and two small phosphate plants from the USSR. Other fertilizer plants soon followed. Fertilizer production increased, along with agricultural production.

The From Dawn to Dawn: China's Journey to Agricultural Self-Sufficiency book has two forewords by two eminent USDA researchers, Edward B. Knipling, who became administrator of the USDA–ARS, and George L. Steffens. The book has four appendixes. The first describes a trip to China that Dr. Tso took in 1977 and gives his observations of research institutes that he visited and of the commune system.

The second appendix is a report to the Chinese Ministry of Agriculture, Animal Husbandry, and Fisheries in 1982, which gives recommendations on teaching of agriculture in China.

The third appendix is a 1982 report to the Chinese Office of International Cooperation and Development on long-range agricultural cooperation between the United States and the People's Republic of China.

The fourth appendix describes the creation of the Institute of International Development and Education in Agriculture and Life Science (IDEALS) in 1983.

The From Dawn to Dawn: China's Journey to Agricultural Self-Sufficiency book's last section (p. 233–241) is a tribute to Norman Borlaug (1914–2009) and reports Dr. Borlaug's key involvement with China from the very start of the opening of China to the United States in 1974. As Dr. Tso writes, “Borlaug had a goal of a world ‘free from hunger,’ and devoted his total effort toward that goal. The top priority was to improve food production in Africa. He considered that his mission began on receiving the Nobel Prize” (p. 237).

However, Borlaug also was interested in China and made recommendations for improving its agricultural production. “One recommendation urged the Chinese government to establish a National and International Network for Airborne Diseases Control. Yellow rust, powdery mildew, and head scab have been the three major diseases limiting Chinese wheat production” (p. 238). “Another of Borlaug's recommendations was that the Chinese government release a newly developed transgenic rice variety” (p. 238).

He made many other suggestions, including education for the young, especially in the rural society, and development of a soybean research project. He also declared that China and India needed to work together on agricultural problems.

Dr. Borlaug died before his goal of feeding Africa was achieved. As Dr. Tso notes (p. 241), “The challenge is indeed great, especially in the sub-Saharan Africa, which was exactly Norman Borlaug's concern at the very moment of his passing.”

The extreme hunger that Dr. Tso experienced as a young person is unknown to the new generations in China, thanks to Dr. Tso's efforts and those of other American scientists who traveled to China to share information on ways to increase agricultural productivity. Dr. Tso's book can be used as an instruction manual for developing countries wishing to increase their food production.

Book review: From Dawn to Dawn: China's Journey to Agricultural Self-Sufficiency.
Source: Journal of Environmental Quality   2010 39:1864-1865

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