Editor's Note: During this year's two sessions－the annual meetings of the National People's Congress and the National Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference－China Daily will publish a series of stories focusing on the achievements the country made in various fields during the 13th Five-Year Plan (2016-20). They show how the country met its development goals in different fields in the face of numerous challenges.
Xiao Qingsong, a resident of Jinmi village in Zhashui county, Shaanxi province, harvests black fungus from mesh bags in a greenhouse, in April 2020. (LIANG AIPING / XINHUA)
An intriguing fact about China's historic victory over extreme poverty is part of its foundations were built on edible fungi and decades of innovative research.
Revitalizing rural China, promoting green development and pushing the envelope of research to better serve the nation's strategic needs are themes highlighted during this year's two sessions and in the 14th Five-Year Plan (2021-25).
Li Yu, a noted mycologist and an academician of the Chinese Academy of Engineering, managed to achieve all three using tiny mushrooms.
Since 2012, all 98.99 million rural poor people have been lifted out of poverty, the government announced last month. Of 832 poverty-stricken counties, 70 to 80 percent of them chose to farm edible mushrooms like black fungus, Li said during a seminar hosted by the academy last month.
The technologies enabled local farmers to sustain high yields despite the impact of the COVID-19 epidemic. The fungi industry in Zhashui county, Shaanxi province, produces around 5,000 metric tons of wood ear mushrooms annually, valued at 300 million yuan, which helped it climb out of poverty in 2019
"This is because growing fungi is not labor, time or resource intensive work. They are easy to plant, require little investment, grow very fast and yield good financial returns, hence it is a first-choice industry for poverty alleviation," the 77-year-old said.
China's agricultural industries produce a huge amount of plant stalks and animal manure every year, which can pollute the environment if not handled properly, Li said.
"Now, we can turn agricultural waste into fertile bags of nutrients for growing fungus," he said. "After they are harvested we can process what's left in the bags into fertilizer, effectively turning trash into treasure.
"This will build a sustainable cycle in which farmers get extra income from waste, consumers get tasty and healthy fungi products and the environment is cleaned in the process. It is like killing multiple birds with one stone."
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Since 2012, Li and his students have spent over 280 days most years traveling to 40 deeply impoverished regions in seven provinces to introduce fungi species, and teach villagers how to use modern equipment and techniques to cultivate them.
His efforts have blossomed into a 35 billion yuan (US$5.38 billion) production and manufacturing industry that features unique products made from fungi including chips, supplements, tea and ice cream, all while lifting 35,000 families from more than 800 villages out of poverty.
In April, President Xi Jinping visited Jinmi village in Zhashui county, Shaanxi province, and examined Li's automated fungi farms, which consist of rows of nutrient-filled mesh bags in a greenhouse equipped with high-definition cameras, sensors and automatic ventilation and irrigation systems.
The technologies enabled local farmers to sustain high yields despite the impact of the COVID-19 epidemic. The county's fungi industry produces around 5,000 metric tons of wood ear mushrooms annually, valued at 300 million yuan, which helped it climb out of poverty in 2019.
Xi was impressed by Li's work, calling it "small wood ear, big industry". On Feb 25, Xi presented Li with a national honorary title for his poverty eradication work.
Li said studying fungi not only serves the nation and its people, but is also an extremely rewarding scientific undertaking and a lifelong passion. So taken is he by mushrooms that he calls his granddaughter mu'er, which is Mandarin for "black fungus".
According to the China Edible Fungi Association, the country produced around 58,000 tons of edible fungi in 1978.
By 2019, production had soared to over 39.34 million tons and the industry was worth more than 312.6 billion yuan, becoming China's fifth-biggest agricultural sector after grain, oil, fruit and vegetables.
The same year, China produced over 70 percent of the world's edible fungi.
"We are a big edible fungi production nation, but due to our relatively late start, our research capability on this subject still leaves much to be desired," Li said.
Several decades ago, few people in China saw value in unassuming mushrooms and molds, even though penicillin, the first mass-produced antibiotic which has saved millions of lives, was derived from the penicillium fungi, he said.
Li said when his mentor, revered mycologist Zhou Zonghuang, was on his deathbed, "he asked me to keep studying mycology because hardly anyone was doing it".
"He held my hand tightly while repeating his last wish, over and over again," he said.
They (agricultural scientists) need to get their feet in the field and use their research to help farmers become rich and live better lives.
Li Yu, noted mycologist and an academician of the Chinese Academy of Engineering
It was then Li learned that of the roughly 500 slime mold species discovered at the time, none had been named by a Chinese scientist despite the country having a wealth of resources. "That was the lifelong regret of my mentor," Li said. "Hence, I solemnly promised him I would continue his work and never give up."
The United States and European countries were the powerhouses of research into fungi.
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However, Li relinquished his opportunity to study abroad to focus his efforts in China. For the next four decades, he ventured deep into remote forests and mountains to get a better sense of the nation's diversity of fungi species.
During field work, it was normal to encounter wild animals, snakes, as well as swarms of mosquitoes and bugs, Li told China Education Daily.
"The scariest moment for me came when I was hiking on Mount Taibai, Shaanxi. I encountered fresh animal droppings on the trail but didn't pay much attention. After going for a couple of minutes, I saw bear footprints and realized I was in deep trouble. It is hard to describe how terrified I was," he said.
Over the years, Li and his teams have collected more than 12,000 fungi specimens and contributed greatly to the taxonomy of the species in China. Li has also discovered and named 36 slime mold species, becoming the first Chinese to do so.
By classifying and studying these fungi, scientists can gain a clearer understanding of their characteristics, which allows them to effectively evaluate and tap into the economic potential of these organisms, as well as save endangered species, Li said.
Thanks to the research he has undertaken, Li has developed over 300 new fungi cultivation techniques since 2012.
He also developed several new breeds of wood ear mushrooms that played a key role in alleviating poverty in Fuping county, Hebei province, Jinzhai county in Anhui province, Tongren county in Guizhou province and other impoverished regions around China.
"Scientists, especially agricultural scientists, should not farm on the blackboard," Li said.
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"They need to get their feet in the field and use their research to help farmers become rich and live better lives."