Zhang Hai Hong walks along the rows of rice fields at his five-hectare Xin Hua Farm in Jiamusi, located in China’s northeastern Heilongjiang Province [see map above]. Set along the lower reaches of the Songhua River, Heilongjiang Province is one of China’s most important regions for rice production.
Stable rice production in this area is imperative for satisfying global demand for rice. Yet rising inflation and production costs, such as labour, fertilizer and agrichemicals, paired with frequent droughts, have led to increasing challenges for farmers in the province.
Another challenge facing the country is zinc deficiency, the most widespread micronutrient deficiency in China. Zinc is essential for health in humans, animals and crops. It is crucial for growth and brain development and helps fight dangerous infections, especially in children.
Today, nearly 50% of arable soils in China are low in plant-available zinc, resulting in stunted crop growth, lower yield and nutrition value, and inefficient uses of scarce water and fertilizer resources. Sadly, 45% of children in China do not get enough zinc in their diet, which can have lifelong health implications due to developmental and cognitive delays.
“Nowadays, people are paying more attention to health and food safety,” says Zhang. “I think rice that is rich in zinc could be welcomed by customers.”
Research has shown that areas with zinc-deficient soils are often regions with widespread zinc deficiency in humans, leading to significant health issues. The yield and nutritional quality of crops, along with farmers’ incomes and public health, can both be improved by ensuring that crops have an adequate supply of zinc.
Partnership Making a Difference
In March 2012, Teck entered into a partnership with the National Agricultural Technology Extension Service Center of the Ministry of Agriculture of China (NATESC) and the International Zinc Association (IZA) to promote the production and use of zinc fertilizer in China.
The project has been implemented by NATESC, an integrated agricultural technology extension organization in China. NATESC commands the resources of over 400,000 agricultural extension workers from the national to village level. The IZA, a non-profit organization active in zinc and nutrition efforts, supports scientific research, publishes informative materials and holds regional, national and international conferences.
Zinc Fertilizer Increasing Crop Yield and Nutritional Quality
For the past three years, the Teck-NATESC-IZA project has been carrying out extensive trial and demo work across China to demonstrate the benefits of zinc fertilizer to China’s agriculture industry.
Zhang is one of the farmers who have adopted the use of zinc fertilizer after visiting one of the project demonstration plots. He saw first-hand the impact that zinc fertilizer had on crops, especially those affected by droughts and disease.
“After using the zinc fertilizer, I have been having stronger seedlings, especially during the bud-bursting period,” he says. “They grow faster and look healthier. What’s more, they show no sign of stresses like usual in a drought or very cold weather. This means I do not have to worry so much about their getting diseases. Not only has the amount of rice increased, but the quality has too.”
Zhang’s account is consistent with the project’s crop trial research. It has found that zinc fertilizer increased crop yields by 8% to 20% and increased the nutritional content of zinc in grains by 20% to 40%. The research also found that zinc fertilizer improved nitrogen fertilizer uptake and increased economic returns for farmers.
The Teck-NATESC-IZA project has generated substantial policy support since 2012 with the inclusion of zinc fertilizer in China’s National Fertilizers Recommendation Guidelines for Major Crops Production. The guidelines are provided to thousands of agricultural extension workers and distributed to millions of farmers nationwide.
To this end, the project takes a shared value approach, which is the idea that a company can create economic value in a way that also creates value for society by addressing a need or challenge.
If these guidelines are fully implemented nationwide, the total annual zinc required for fertilizer production would be 300,000 tons, a significant increase from the 40,000 tons produced in 2014.
This could benefit Teck as a zinc producer and the zinc industry as a whole, especially if these recommendations are scaled up in other countries with widespread malnutrition, such as India or Brazil.
In the longterm, Teck, NATESC and the IZA would like to see this small project in China grow to reach farmers in countries where there is widespread zinc deficiency in both agricultural soils and humans. Increasing the income of rural farmers could have significant implications in reducing the cycle of poverty that affects millions of low-income farmers around the world.
Back in Jiamusi, Zhang and his wife are happy with the impact that zinc fertilizer has had on his rice fields. With the additional income, they will now be able to purchase new and much-needed machinery for the Xin Hua Farm and “perhaps a car,” he adds with a smile.