A first-hand account of how China utilises innovation and technology to create highly-productive dairy operations from barren deserts was relayed to online viewers at Nuffield Australia's 2021 National Conference.
Former Nuffield Scholar Paul Niven moved to China in 2015, where he established the Pure Source Dairy business - a joint venture between Fonterra and Abbott - with 8000 cows and 5000 acres of crop.
He leads the dairy consultancy practice for Asian Agribusiness Consulting, working with large-scale dairies in China to build new farms and improve performance.
He offered a snapshot of the unique practices being employed in China to transform barren alpine deserts in the country's north-west provinces.
"There is a very large scale and socially enabled movement in China to rehabilitate this type of land that has been desert for hundreds and hundreds of years - often in the middle of nowhere," Mr Niven said.
The annual rainfall is about 200 millimetres in some of the areas that are being rehabilitated.
"They are able to grow things here simply because of the water that is available," Mr Niven said.
"Rehabilitating the sand dunes is horrendously labour intensive."
They start by dividing the dune into small areas, then creating small fences in a grid-like design where small grass begins to establish.
Trickle irrigation pipe is then bedded down, and after a period of about two years, they begin to grow trees.
There are established programs whereby people can invest in the rehabilitation process.
Companies such as Alibaba offer customers an option to donate their credits to buy trees and rehabilitate desert land.
"You can see infrastructure being built first-hand and utilising land that is honestly very, very unproductive," Mr Niven said.
"But they are utilising water they have and they will be growing corn on the land in about two years.
"That is the timeline they put on these projects on top of the rehabilitation period.
"It is done with very cheap labour and it is very labour intensive."
According to Mr Niven, while China has embraced these very advanced agricultural techniques, it is still a place of two extremes.
China remains on the one hand, focused on development and high technology, and on the other hand, still employs basic farming systems, harking back to the 1950s.
"As we all know, drones are a very useful tool in agriculture, and in China, they are now starting to use them to spray crops, especially for herbicides and some pesticides," Mr Niven said.
"On the surface, you think there is being some good technology adopted here, but the chemicals are mixed in a truck using no personal protective equipment and with no evident dilution rates.
"Unfortunately, you see a wonderful technology such as a drone not being used very well.
"Behind the scenes, there is a lot more work to be done.
"The adoption of innovation is one thing, but without the knowledge and skills of what we are doing and changing the behind the scenes activity, we are not going to make any progress."
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