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The Man Who Planted Jerusalem Artichokes

6 June 2006

Jiang Jiyu has spent nearly a decade studying how a vegetable, the Jerusalem artichoke, could help stop the spread of deserts in Inner Mongolia, China.

The former farmer tested how the plants grow under different conditions before planting them over 80 hectares of land in Inner Mongolia in 1999. A drought killed the area's wild plants but, in a triumph hailed by the media, the Jerusalem artichokes survived.

With help from students Jiyu planted seedlings on a further 200 hectares, and started investigating ways of processing the nutritious roots as a food product.

His efforts are made even more remarkable by the fact his work is self-funded.

Last week, he signed an agreement to send 10 further tons of the plant to the autonomous region, which will be planted in 20 hectares of land in Alxa League Left Banner, at the westernmost part of the region.

"Although it has caused me countless difficulties and left me with debts, I have never regretted indulging in my study of the plant. " Jiang smiled.

Formerly a farmer in the port city of Dalian in Liaoning Province, Jiang was startled to see the destruction caused by desertification in Inner Mongolia while visiting a friend there 10 years ago.

Jiang was unconvinced by his friend's argument that no plant could grow in the desert.

He thought of the Jerusalem artichokes dotted abundantly near the beach in his home city, which grew in harsh conditions.

Jiang began carrying out tests as soon as he got back. He buried tuberous roots from the plant in dried sand on a plastic sheet, and was delighted with the results.

He repeated tests in different conditions before heading back to Inner Mongolia in April 1999 with the results of his study.

The local government granted him about 80 hectares of land to plant his Jerusalem artichokes in.

"We were met with a drought that year, but while the existing flowers already in the area died, our plant survived and formed tuberous roots in the autumn," Jiang recalled.

"I began to consider processing the roots, as its powder is nutritious," Jiang said.

But an outbreak of SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) cut off discussions with an interested businessman.

His hope for a factory vanished and all the roots that were collected had to be discarded.

Two years earlier, the State Forestry Administration had listed his planting of Jerusalem artichokes as a desertification control item and offered him an interest-free loan of 5 million yuan (US$625,000).

"But I had no real estate as guarantee for the loan, so it couldn't happen," he said.

Despite his setbacks, Jiang has always fought on. "I'll never give up my choice no matter what difficulties occur again as people have recognized my efforts," Jiang said.

Over the past few years, he has donated plants and seeds to local governments who had no money to pay for them.
Jiang said the existing desert areas in the region, or those at threat of desertification, amount to 60 per cent of the total land and was increasing by 670,000 hectares every year.

He attributed the increase to global warming and careless exploitation of the region.

A recent paper in Science has shown the tropics are expanding towards both poles according to 26 years of satellite data. The researchers say the jet streams are being pushed polewards because the atmosphere is warming in the subtropics faster than anywhere else.

Areas including the northern Middle East and South Africa would face increased drought and desertification if the tropics continue to expand. In such areas, work like Jiang's could be critical in preventing disasters.

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