China / Crop-Livestock / ILRI / Interview / Livestock / Staff

The ‘ILRI crowd’ in Asia: Xianglin Li

Each week on this blog, we meet with ILRI staff members, partners and projects in Asia to learn about their work, challenges and the opportunities they face to leverage livestock knowledge in Asia.

With the vast Gobi desert consuming its north, and the Yellow River running through it’s capital, Gansu province in northeastern China still manages to provide ILRI with another significant landmark of note – Lanzhou University. For it is here that Xianglin Li obtained his PhD in agro-ecology, a degree which would eventually lead him to become one of ILRI’s first China-based staff members; he is now ILRI’s China Liaison Scientist, based in Beijing.

Xianglin Li (third from left) with a group of Mongolian herders

ILRI Asia: As the Liaison Scientist for ILRI in China, tell us what your position entails?

Xianglin: My work here is mainly concerned with being the focal point for ILRI’s operations in China, with my role broadly falling into a few key areas:

  • Overseeing any official interaction between ILRI and Chinese institutions and partners
  • Providing relevant stakeholders with information about ILRI and our work here
  • Maintaining cooperative associations with other active CGIAR centers in China
  • Identifying priorities and opportunities for ILRI activities in China in association with our theme directors and project leaders.

On top of this, I maintain professional links with other professional organizations – such as the Institute of Animal Science and the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences (CAAS) with whom ILRI shares a strong relationship. My time there is spent lecturing and providing advice to students at the graduate school, or fulfilling my duties as vice president of the Chinese Grassland Society, a position I’ve held for the last nine years.

ILRI Asia: With over a decade working with ILRI, what are some particular highlights of your time with ILRI?

Xianglin: Undoubtedly the most significant milestone of the last decade had to be the agreement signed between ILRI and CAAS on 20 August 2001. It was an agreement that established the ILRI Liaison Office here in Beijing, and which would ultimately enable us to operate here. The agreement’s significance is all the more important as CAAS represents not only the largest national research organization here, but also the main partner for any collaborative research CGIAR centers like ILRI carry out in China. I’m also pleased to say that since the establishment of our partnership with CAAS, our relationship has strengthened. Despite the total amount still being relatively small, we are still seeing significant increases in China’s contribution to ILRI, with additional grants beyond core funding also being made. For example, CAAS has recently committed to provide US$80,000 to support four young visiting scientists to work at ILRI headquarters in 2012.

Beyond this, we’ve definitely had other project highlights that have brought benefits to ILRI and the local Chinese research community, but also the agricultural research community in neighboring countries as well, with the major projects detailed briefly below:

Crop-Animal Systems Research Network (CASREN)

Since 1999, China has been involved in the regional CASREN programme. First in Yunnan province, and then in 2002 with the introduction of a project-site in Sichuan province that focused on smallholder sweet potato-pig systems. The Asian Development Bank-funded program used participatory approaches to spread the application of appropriate technologies to enhance the productivity of smallholder crop-livestock systems in rain-fed upland areas. During the implementation of the project, a total of US$200,300 was provided by the local government to the two benchmark sites.

Read the ILRI Outcome Story from the CASREN project in China

Establishment of a CAAS-ILRI Joint Lab on Livestock and Forage Genetic Resources (JLLGR)

With research on livestock genetic resources flagged as a priority for China-ILRI collaboration, it was great to oversee the establishment of this collaborative effort between ILRI and CAAS in May 2004. The joint lab, based at the Institute of Animal Sciences of CAAS in Beijing applies state-of-the-art technology in characterizing livestock and forage genetic resources, whilst also aiming to build capacity within the national agricultural research systems of China and Southeast Asia. Completed in April 2006 at a total cost of over ¥4 million (US$600,000) – paid fully by China  – the lab was the first such facility of it’s kind that CGIAR centers established in China. It has provided vast new opportunities for international cooperation on conserving livestock and forage genetic diversity within the region, exemplified by the fact that it has received over forty visiting scientists from the region for collaborative research and training on biotechnology.

A new partnership with the National Natural Science Foundation of China (NSFC)

In 2010, the ILRI Beijing Office facilitated the visit of a senior delegation from the NSFC to ILRI Nairobi, led by Dr. Qing Chang, Director General of NSFC’s International Cooperation Department. The NSFC is one of the largest funding sources in China for basic research, and has identified livestock genetics and genomics research using molecular biotechnology as a priority area. Following this, the office also coordinated the visits of ILRI’s regional representative at the time – Iain Wright – and Biotechnology theme director – Vish Nene – to NSFC. Subsequently, an NSFC-ILRI workshop on animal biotechnology was held in Beijing in December 2011, with ILRI Director General – Jimmy Smith – and other senior scientists in attendance. The workshop set priorities for ILRI-NSFC collaborative research and generated calls for research proposals – which are still currently being finalized between ILRI and NSFC scientists.

ILRI Asia: What are the biggest challenges currently facing the Chinese livestock sector as you see it?

Xianglin: The livestock sector in China has developed rapidly over the past two decades and has dominated the ‘livestock revolution’ in terms of aggregate size and growth rate. However, poor livestock food product quality, safety and reliability are major problems facing the Chinese consumer. These issues also act as a major obstacle in allowing smallholders to gain market access, and definitely need to be addressed accordingly.

China is also experiencing issues in meeting heightened demand for feed grain within the existing levels of supply. Traditional livestock production has been based on locally available feed resources, such as natural grazing and crop residues that had no value to the human diet. However, as livestock production grows and intensifies, the demand for locally available feed resources is quickly outstripping supply. There is now a strong shift towards feed concentrates that are traded both domestically and internationally – exerting significant pressure on the grain market.

As the size of the livestock sector here continues to grow at a rapid pace, China will continue to face issues of rapid land degradation from excessive grazing. It has been generally agreed that 90% of China’s grasslands have already degraded, with degradation increasing at a rate of 200km2 per year – with significant regional variation further complicating matters. In addition to this, pastoral regions of China have undergone a rapid increase in human population density over the last decade. If the amount of livestock (or amount of ‘wealth’) is to remain at a similar per capita level in order to maintain the standard of living, than the total stock number and density of livestock per unit of area will also have to increase. The issues of land degradation and relatively low incomes have unfortunately come to be inter-related, and self-reinforcing. In the absence of other livelihood options, low-income pastoralists have been forced to increase livestock numbers, which leads to grassland overstocking and degradation, which in turn reduces the potential of grassland production and income generation, thus further exacerbating the degradation-livelihood cycle.

These are some of the major problems that we currently face; there is also the environmental and public health problems that have arisen with the burgeoning livestock sector. Air and water pollution caused by mismanaged animal waste in areas of high-livestock density is becoming another prominent issue in China.

ILRI Asia: What area/s of the livestock sector is ILRI currently focusing on in China?

Xianglin: Generally speaking, ILRI’s projects in China are quite limited in terms of project numbers, size and resource investment. In the past, smallholder mixed crop-livestock farming formed the focus of ILRI’s work in China, however with the completion of the CARSEN project, the focus has shifted somewhat away from this area of research.

In 2009, the introduction of a country team in Yunnan province as part of the Ecosystem approaches to better management of zoonotic emerging infectious diseases in the South East Asia Region (EcoZD) program signaled a new area of focus for ILRI. Building on this, 2011 saw ILRI and NSFC identify ‘Basic research in animal health to prevent and control important diseases’ as a priority area for collaborative research in China, with three key areas identified for project proposals so far:

  1. Epidemiology and disease transmission
  2. Molecular immunology
  3. Antigen identification systems and improved antigen delivery systems

Today, ILRI has also earmarked research on livestock genetic resources as being another priority area in China. This priority is of course well supported by the establishment of the ILRI-CAAS joint lab that I briefly discussed earlier.

ILRI Asia: Have you seen signs of a shift in attitude towards agricultural livestock research in China recently?

Xianglin: Yes, there have definitely been some positive signs in recent times. For instance, there has been a dramatic increase in the level of government investment in livestock research, and the market now places greater emphasis on quality rather than quantity in regards to livestock products. More attention is also being paid to large-scale industrial livestock systems and value-added livestock products, and there is definitely increased consideration of the interaction between livestock production, the environment and public health.

As you might have picked up, the research sector has also seen an increase in the application of modern technologies such as molecular tools and genetic transformation, while also engaging a higher degree of international cooperation, and paying more attention to international periodicals.

ILRI Asia: Is there any aspect of the livestock sector that you believe could benefit from greater attention in China?

Xianglin: Definitely. Some of the issues I’ve touched upon earlier are, in my opinion, areas of priority for livestock research here. In no specific order, these issues are:

  • A feasible characterization and conservation strategy regarding the diversity of indigenous livestock genetic resources, including disease-resistant genetics;
  • The rangeland degradation-livelihood problems of pastoral systems in Western China that I alluded to earlier;
  • Vaccine development;
  • Livestock food safety and the resultant human health issues.

ILRI Asia: Finally Xianglin, what has 2012 in store for you with ILRI?

Xianglin: Well, with a new ILRI Director-General in Jimmy Smith, and Heads of Asia in Purvi Mehta-Bhatt, I hope it will result in a clear strategy for ILRI program development in China being etched out. I will continue my efforts to identify new opportunities and to mobilize resources for ILRI activities in China.

Next year will also see China celebrate ’30 years of the CGIAR in China’ and I do hope the remainder of 2012 will bring an increased role for ILRI in China.

Xianglin Li (center) conducts a participatory survey in a village of Sichuan province

For more information on Xianglin, please view his ILRI Profile Page

Read the ILRI report on CASREN interventions in Sichuan province

View ILRI projects in China

How is the CGIAR in Action in China?

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