by Wei Long
Beijing - May 29, 2000 - Chinese space and agricultural scientists are considering launching a satellite that will be used for breeding seeds in space Xinhua News Agency reported last week.
Experts say that this will be the first ever satellite dedicated to breeding seeds in space.
In recent months China has accelerated its research in space-breeding techniques. The goal is that by using the new technology to substantially increase the yield and quality of crops it will elevate the country to a leading agricultural producer in the 21st century.
Liu Luxiang, Director of the Space Technology Breeding Center which is part of the Nuclear Energy Application Research Centre of the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences, says: "Breeding seeds in space is expected to become a strong driving force behind Chinese agriculture in the 21st century since it can bring about high-yield and high-quality crops that are hard for ordinary breeding methods to obtain."
Space-breeding refers to the technique of sending seeds into space in a recoverable spacecraft or a high-altitude balloon. In the high-vacuum, low-gravity and strong-radiation space environment, seeds may undergo mutation. Upon returning to Earth, mutated seeds will be selected and planted to breed strains with higher quality and yield, and which may be resistant to disease and early maturing.
Presently other nations involved in space-breeding are primarily interested in investigating how plants grow in space and producing food for the orbiting astronauts. China is believed to be the only country seeking to apply the process to terrestrial agricultural farming.
According to Liu, China leads the world in using space-breeding techniques to improve crop quality. Under the State Project 863, which began in 1986, China has launched 8 recoverable spacecraft and 5 high-altitude balloons with over 70 varieties of crop seeds on board. These seeds include rice, cotton, oil, vegetables and fruit. The returned seeds produced a large number of strains.
The latest mission that carried seeds into space was the maiden flight of the Shenzhou manned capsule last November. Carried aboard were seeds of tomato, watermelon, luobai (Chinese radish), green pepper, corn, barley, wheat, more than 10 kinds of vegetable, and over 30 different types of herbal medicine. Last month some of these seeds were planted in the space-breeding experiment base here and in a similar facility in Guangzhou, a southern metropolis 130km northwest of Hong Kong.
According to Chinese scientists space seeds when compared to ordinary strains show the following improvements:
Even though the seeds are exposed to high dosage of radiation in space, there is no trace of radioactive substance found in them after extensive testing.
Incomplete statistics indicate that China has nearly 405,000 hectares of rice fields planted with space seeds and 8,100 hectares of space vegetable growing. An estimate of 243,000 hectares of space rice fields will be added this year.
At the end of 1998 Dajiang Town in Shandong Province in eastern China and the Chinese Academy of Sciences established the country's first Space Vegetable Foundation.
In January this year Changxing County, about 150 km west of Shanghai in Zhejiang Province in eastern China, announced the signing of a colloborative agreement with the China Corporation of Aerospace Industry (CCAI) to build the largest space seed nursery and develop technologies. The nursery will occupy more than 4,000 hectares. Total investment is $30 million renminbi ($3.6 million U.S.).
A Ministry of Agriculture official said that space-breeding technologies would help China increase crop production and quality to feed its growing population.
Although China has a sufficient supply of grain, high-quality farm produce is still in short supply. Current predictions suggest that by 2030 demand for agricultural produce will have increased more than 30 percent from the present level.
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