A sentinel for China's potatoes

An agronomist helps set up a system that protects against a devastating crop blight, and as he does so sees a country's transformation

By CHEN WEIHUA in Brussels | China Daily | Updated: 2024-02-16 08:41
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Farmers carry early maturing potatoes and load them onto trucks in Qianxi county, Guizhou province, on May 3. The county has been working on developing early maturing potatoes to meet the needs of the market, bringing stable income for local farmers. Potatoes hold significant importance as a staple food in China. ZHOU XUNCHAO/FOR CHINA DAILY

Francois Serneels became fascinated with China, when he read The Blue Lotus by his compatriot Herge, the Belgian comic writer famed for his The Adventures of Tintin series.

The book, published in the mid-1930s, satirizes common European misconceptions about China as well as criticizing the brutality of the then Japanese invaders.

It was the first book Serneels had read about China.

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"Visiting China was a childhood dream," says Serneels, quality and environment manager of the Center for Agronomy and Agro-industry of the Province of Hainaut, CARAH, in southern Belgium. "I always wanted to visit China."

His long-awaited first trip to Asia came in his second college year in 1980 when he visited India, and in 1984 he went to work in Thailand for two years, telling himself that he was halfway to China.

However, it would not be for another 15 years before he would finally set foot in China.

Serneels, who turned 64 on Dec 26- a birthday he notes coincides with that of Chairman Mao Zedong- has visited China more than 60 times conducting agricultural technology exchanges and, more specifically, to help Chinese farmers fight potato late blight disease.

It all started when Serneels came across an advertisement in a Belgian agricultural journal in 1999 about organizing a delegation from the Wallonia region to attend an international agricultural exhibition in China. He learned by chance that an international conference on plant protection would be held there a week earlier, so it seemed perfect for him to attend the two events, with airfare and hotel rooms both covered.

Serneels, then director of a CARAH training farm, presented the technique of an early warning system to control potato late blight, a serious potato disease that caused huge yield and quality losses for potato crops in China and many other developing countries.

"To my surprise, a lot of Chinese agronomists were very interested," he says. He then realized that he had been wrong to think that the potato was just a Western staple. In fact China was - and remains - the world's biggest potato producer.

In fact most potatoes are grown in Asia, Serneels says. China produces more than 90 million metric tons of them a year, about a quarter of the world's total, while India trails with some 50 million tons.

He made some China contacts during his first trip and within a few months began receiving Chinese delegations in Belgium. Several months later he returned to China on his second trip.

It was a trip to the remote countryside in Chongqing municipality in Southwest China at a time when some farmers being relocated because of the Three Gorges Dam were learning how to grow potatoes as their new crop, but potato late blight that destroys the plant was a serious problem.

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