Hon-Ming Lam: Blood, Soybeans, and Change
Updated: Dec 13, 2019
My Second Trip to South Africa
English Translation of Professor Hon-Ming Lam’s Articles During 6-20 January 2017
Prelude: Science Without Borders
In February 2013, I participated in the World Soybean Research Conference in Durban, South Africa. A South African representative discussed agriculture's importance in achieving post-colonial economic equality: he thought that soybeans would play a vital role as a cash crop. I put those words in my heart.
Later, I got to know some South African soybean researchers by chance, and we gradually ramped up our collaborative efforts. TF and I set off for an academic presentation at the South African Association of Botanists Conference; we would also visit universities and go into the fields to renew our bonds with South African science. (Editors' note: Professor Ting-Fung "TF" Chan is an Associate Professor of the School of Life Sciences of the Chinese University of Hong Kong and the Co-director of Hong Kong Bioinformatics Centre.)
When I take Hong Kong's scientific innovation to the world, technologically advanced countries in Europe and America shouldn't be the only options. Developing regions such as Africa are equally important, and they present even more opportunities.
Science knows no borders; next stop: South Africa.
Before setting off to South Africa, I had a discussion on soybean research with an acquaintance in academia. I told my friend that the global trade value of soybeans reached dozens of billions of dollars. My friend said that the profit margin of a successful drug would be far more than that number.
Although food and medicine are both safeguards to the survival of humanity, different people have different reactions towards the two. Poor people worry the most about not having money to purchase food, while rich people worry the most when their money cannot be used to buy effective drugs. Developed countries with resources invest way, way more funds into drug research than agricultural research; as a result, they could attract qualified scientific research personnel to join their ranks.
When a person dies from hunger every few seconds in our world, and hundreds of millions of people suffer from malnutrition, we can't neglect food shortage.
For many developed countries, multinational corporations play a key role in agricultural research. If mishandled, it would become multinational dominance, potentially suffocating the agricultural development of developing countries. Hence, developing countries need to have their independent agricultural research as a safeguard towards long-term food security.
Coming to South Africa for the Conference, I hope to deepen my understanding of the agricultural development outlook of African countries; I am more than eager to begin collaborative research.
There is a civilian-run District Six museum at Cape Town, providing a glimpse of the Apartheid.
In the seventies, the white rulers of South Africa, expanding their territory and developing housing, evicted sixty thousand non-white persons living the District Six of Cape Town, tore down their homes, and built a whites-only community.
What the non-whites could bring away with them, apart from a suitcase, were only memories.
The Apartheid only ended by 1991, a mere three decades back. Right now in many other places around the world, there are still people who destroy other’s homes to build their own condos. Racial discrimination, the rich and powerful oppressing the weak and poor; these virulent strains of humanity never seem to wither and go away.
I also listened to academic reports prepared by South African graduates. The hosts invited me to be one of the judges that determine who should get the prize.
As it happened, my “killer” instincts were triggered: I kept firing questions at the students; I wonder if I scared them off. Despite that, I always believe that asking the speakers questions is to show the most respect towards them.
The reporting students, coming from different schools, having different genders and skin colors, exchanging ideas freely in the realm of science.
The last student presenter might’ve had a speech disorder; seeing him panting and sweating while uttering out the report word by word, sentence by sentence in a trembling voice, everyone in seat rewarded him with a rousing round of applause.
All of us face different sorts of difficulties, but not everyone has the courage to face it and strive to overcome it.
Johannesburg and beyond
We first did an academic exchange at the ARC Plant Protection Institute in Stellenbosch, then we swiftly hopped on a plane to Johannesburg to continue our South African academic trip. The next day, we journeyed to the ARC Grain Crops Institute in Potchefstroom, mainly to understand the role of soybeans in South Africa and their development.
Only 13% of South Africa’s land is arable, with a low average rainfall; her land is not simply dry but also nitrogen-deficient.
South Africa first introduced soybeans in 1993. On the one hand, it could provide protein and oils for direct human consumption or as feedstock; on the other hand, its nitrogen-fixing properties could be harnessed using farming methods like crop rotation to conserve land resources. By 2017, South Africa produces a million tonnes of soybeans annually and imports an additional 2.5 million tonnes.
South Africa’s commercial soybean seeds mainly come from other countries, so I suggested that they consider bolstering local seed nursery teams to breed seeds that they own intellectual rights to, so to pave the way for a self-sufficient future. My local friends reminded me that South Africa is still a Third World country, where sorting out priorities for the distribution of resources requires much deliberation.
Here I got the impression that women play a vital role in agricultural development. For example, two of the five-person group responsible for planting tests of national soybean seeds are female. This group is led by a lady, while the other lady and her three male coworkers are responsible for the actual fieldwork.
Lizette, one of the members of the group, told me that the four are responsible for everything from sowing, recording growth rates to determining productivity and quality assurance all across the nation; also, they have to provide feedback to peasant farmers and seed corporations. During peak season, they bring along the suitcases to work and return home at dusk on Friday.
Seeing the hard work from my South African peers made me recall the time when I first met China’s previous generation of agricultural researchers two decades ago. Scientific groundbreakers may not reap the harvest with their own hands; however, what they want is for more people to enjoy the fruits of their labor.
We spent most of our day touring South African soybean farms and interacting with local seed company representatives and farm owners. This furthered my understanding of the prospects of soybeans in South Africa.
The farm owner said that South African farmers traditionally planted corn -- old habits die hard. However, he thought that he shouldn’t simply stick to what he had done, so he attempted to plant soybeans. He took out his pocket calculator and pressed a few buttons to show us that planting soybeans gives him a larger return.
He told us that everyone started out planting soybeans with the same row spacing as they had planted corn since they could use the same seed drills and operation model that they had grown accustomed to. But he thought that this distance could be determinative to water retention, so he decided to change the row distance and plant spacing, successfully boosting the harvest per hectare of land.
As we prepared to say our farewells, this white farm owner mentioned to us a great change in his life. He was originally a soldier responsible for suppressing the anti-Apartheid ANC. As the white government later announced the abolishing of segregation and held popular elections, he decided to change his mindset to treat both whites and colored people in South Africa as one family. He said that to this day, there are still a minority of whites who do not accept this change, living in complaint and anger; still, he is happy that he made the right choice to let bygones be bygones and live a new life.
Change is easier said than done; courage is all that it takes to drive change.
For the last two days of our trip to South Africa, TF and I visited the Voortrekker Monument and the Apartheid Museum to understand the history of this nation from two different lenses.
From the Voortrekker descendants’ point of view, their ancestors, mainly European whites, set sail to be pioneers in Africa in search of a better life. When Voortrekkers had founded Cape Town, their attracted the attention of British colonizers; the British, predators they were, forcefully took over the Town. The Voortrekkers, reluctant to be subject to British rule, chose the long, arduous path of mass exodus. As they migrated up north, they oftentimes had battles with local black tribes; in the determining Battle of Blood River, which they won despite being outnumbered, they slaughtered three thousand Zulu warriors to hold their footing.
In the exhibits of the Voortrekker Monument, people could revisit the heroics of Voortrekker men, women or even children. They reiterate that Voortrekkers only sought space for survival, not to be predators. However, standing from the perspective of South African blacks, whatever the type of white people may they be, they were nevertheless invaders of blacks’ homes.
After the Voortrekkers successfully settled across South Africa, the British colonizers again snatched the fruits of their labor with military might. The discovery of gold and diamonds in South Africa precipitated two Anglo-Boer Wars; in the end, the British claimed victory and South Africa was unified under British rule.
After WWII, The Republic of South Africa gained independence from the UK in 1961. The government formed by white minorities, in order to protect their interests, continued enforcing segregation and allocated most of the resources exclusively to the small fraction of whites. South African colored organizations started boycotts; the white government responded with military crackdowns, while some black organizations fought back with violence. People lived in hate and agony for extended periods of time.
Amid a series of black resistance movements and international outcry, the white-minority government finally decided to right past wrongs, unconditionally releasing black leader Nelson Mandela, abolishing segregation policies, rewriting the constitution and holding new government elections through universal suffrage. After ascending to power, Mandela used his charisma and power as a leader to rein in demands of taking revenge on whites by some blacks, instead implementing policies of observance and forgiveness to let every tribe in South Africa who are willing to live in peace to let go of the past and rebuild the country with the same national identity.
Today, many Hong Kong friends who have yet to set foot on South Africa perceive it as a land of prejudice, poverty, and crime. Yes, these things still exist; but through this journey, what we also saw were fields filled with hope and lots of persistent researchers and agriculturalists. I told my South African friend Ndiko that when a place is filled with challenges and difficulties, it provides opportunities for those with ability and determination.
As my journey to South Africa comes to a close, I sincerely wish that this multiethnic nation can flourish and prosper, and provide a problem-solving model for regions around the world mired in racial hate.