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March 16, 2010

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Growing mushrooms with biotech

WHAT pops up in your mind when you see the Chinese word juncao? Probably nothing too much apart from it seeming exotic.

However, for many poor farmers in Papua New Guinea, South Africa, Lesotho and Rwanda, juncao means a mushroom cash crop. It is a seemingly magic technology that enables them to grow many types of nutritious and delicious mushrooms from many kinds of dried chopped grasses, bringing in cash and dignity.

Some people even name their babies Juncao (jun meaning fungi, cao meaning grass.)

"I insisted on giving it a Chinese name," says the 67-year-old inventor of the mushroom-growing technology, Professor Lin Zhanxi, who addressed the first International Symposium on Juncao Industry Development. It was held 14 years ago in Fuzhou, capital of eastern China's Fujian Province.

"Over 20 English names were suggested, such as mushroom grass and fungus grass," says Lin, a professor at the Fujian Agriculture and Forestry University. "But it's a brand-new technology and deserves a brand-new name. I'm glad I've given a new word to the English language."

The idea for juncao came from a hungry young Lin in the early 1970s. "People were starving in those days, even to death. But cattle rarely died of hunger. So I asked myself, why couldn't people eat grass just like cattle?"

In 1971, Lin put forward the idea of cultivating edible fungi in chopped-up wild grass - he was the first to do so. It was not until 1983, eight years after he entered the Fujian university, that he began the arduous research following up his idea.

At the end of 1986, Lin saw the world's first juncao mushroom sprout from a bottle filled with chopped bird's foot fern and other ingredients.

"I gazed at it in wonder and tears," Lin recalls. "We were at the threshold of an agricultural revolution."

Since then, Lin and his team have cultivated juncao using 45 different kinds of wild grasses and fibers - from elephant grass and husks to sugarcane stalks. He matches specific mushrooms to local ground-up grasses, adds a specifically formulated patented ingredient, and determines temperature and other requirements.

More than 30 (so far) types of mushrooms can be grown using juncao, ranging from shitake mushrooms to ganoderma.

Since the 1970s, mushrooms have been cultivated using sawdust and wood chips, which means cutting down trees.

"Losing trees is too big a price to pay," says Lin. "Juncao technology sets the mushroom cultivation industry on an eco-friendly and sustainable path.

"It is also easy to learn and promises quick returns on small investments. So it can be a powerful weapon for poor people to combat unemployment, poverty and malnutrition," he adds.

According to Lin, China has 400 million hectares of grassland, three times the area of arable land. Making use of only 1 percent of it, China's juncao industry could generate more than 90 million tons of fresh mushrooms worth 720 billion yuan (US$105.6 billion) and 24 million jobs.

Yet Lin's ambitions go beyond China. While endeavoring to spread juncao at home, he and his team have been spreading the message abroad since 1995, when the first international juncao technology training seminar was held in Fuzhou.

"It's like an ever-growing juncao family," says Lin's daughter, Lin Dongmei, who resigned as a civil servant in Singapore and returned home to assist her father in 2003.

"As the juncao family grows bigger, our common enemies - poverty and unemployment - seem smaller," wrote Brian W. Wall from Papua New Guinea, the first country to introduce juncao technology in a Chinese-government-aid project.

A young trainee from Uganda named Alex has even set up a cross-border business," Lin Dongmei says. "He rents a plot in Rwanda to grow juncao mushrooms and sells his products back to Uganda."

In 2005 Rwanda paid US$120,000 to buy the juncao technology. Construction of a Chinese government-aided juncao demonstration center, at a cost of 40 million yuan, began last April and will be completed in October.

Rwanda is the second developing country to buy the juncao technology. Earlier, in 2004, South Africa's KuaZulu-Natal (KZN) provincial government bought the technology for US$240,000 to help alleviate poverty.

In 2005 Lin and his team went to South Africa to help carry out the KZN project. For years, Lin Zhanxi and his and daughter would work together in the fields of KuaZulu-Natal, quite a rare sight for locals.

"Whenever I called 'Papa', the locals would laugh, some even followed suit," Lin Dongmei recalls.

Soon the father of juncao became known as Papa Juncao.

To make it easier to grow mushrooms, Lin simplified the method - just pouring five buckets of water on the mushroom beds each day.

And in seven days, the farmers had a crop Thus they could gather mushrooms all year round. However, the greater challenge lay in changing local conventions and establishing new management models.

"To our surprise," says Lin, "farmland there is still collectively run, everyone's eating from the same big pot, just as in China before the beginning of reform and opening up in 1978."

Lin and his team managed to divide the growing plot into different sections and transfer land to individuals.

Since 2006, Lin has explored the flagship site model in KNZ's Kwadindi that produces raw materials, markets produce and recycles. It is supported by a juncao demonstration base and operated by a cooperative consisting of the poorest of the poor.

According to Lin Dongmei's notes, Ms Nozipho Precious Ngcobo from Kwadindi planted 5 square meters on August 11, 2007; 13 days later she collected 82.6 kilograms of fresh mushrooms.

Generally speaking, a farmer with a 10-square-meter plot can earn 24,000 rand (US$3,240) to 32,000 rand a year, double the ordinary income of locals, Lin says.

KZN now has five such flagship sites and the local government plans to build 15 more at a cost of around 5 million rand each.

"The model has been transplanted and improved upon from the poverty-relief model we applied successfully in northwest China's Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region," says Lin.

The KZN government has invested more than 100 million rand to develop the juncao industry, so far the province's largest agricultural project.

Lin and his team are undertaking a more ambitious project in Fiji, a small South Pacific island country they visited last month.

"The starting location is perfect," says Lin. "It's as large as a football field and only a kilometer from the international airport. We're also going to set up our own enterprises, including a juncao mushroom restaurant."

Lin says it's another important project financed by the Chinese government, aiming to develop the juncao industry from scratch in Fiji. The aim is for the industry to account for more than 20 percent of Fiji's agricultural output in 10 years.

In Fiji, Lin and his team plan to cultivate mushrooms both indoors and outdoors in natural conditions, using the shade of mango trees to keep the temperature down.

Lin has traveled to 29 countries, mostly poor developing nations, to promote juncao technology.

"The poor countries need me more," says Lin.


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