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U.S.-China Science and Technology Agreement Rooted in Agriculture

Feb 26, 2024
  • Karen Mancl

    Professor Emerita of Food, Agricultural & Biological Engineering, The Ohio State University, and Fellow, Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars

Deng Xiaoping Carter.png

Late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping and former U.S. president Jimmy Carter during the signing of the U.S.-China Scientific and Technological Cooperation Agreement and a cultural agreement at the White House, U.S., January 31, 1979.

Concerns over Taiwan, the Middle East, and Moscow creating tension between the United States and China blanket the news today, but these same issues have always stoked tensions in the relationship between the two nations. These same issues were being considered through the 1970s following Nixon’s 1972 China visit as described by Henry Kissinger in his book “On China.” After Nixon’s resignation, Mao’s death, and the election of Jimmy Carter, the two countriesfinally established a diplomatic relationship in 1979 and signed the Science and Technology Agreement. Sadly, this foundational agreement expired in August 2023 and is operating on just a 6-month extension.

More than a half dozen years before establishing diplomatic recognition, the seed of scientific collaboration was first planted behind the scenes as a result of Henry Kissinger’s negotiations and the development of the Shanghai Communique in 1972. By 1976, more than 20 cultural, educational, and sports delegations had visited the PRC with about an equal number of Chinese visiting the United States. The scientific exchanges were arranged by the National Academy of Sciences’ Committee on Scholarly Communications with the People’s Republic of China (CSCPRC). The CSCPRC arranged for a group of Chinese agricultural scientists to visit the United States in 1973 to learn more about insect control in crops. Six more Chinese agricultural groups followed, and four groups traveled to China from the United States. The success of these agricultural scientific exchanges helped open the door to the broader Science and Technology Agreement. The agreement sets the framework for government agencies, universities, organizations, institutions and others to have contact and cooperate. Through the agreement we have been able to share important information and provide for intellectual property protection.

Fifty years of success demonstrates the need for continued agricultural collaboration. While acknowledging old and new areas of conflict, national policymakers could take a step back to recognize that, in agriculture, the United States and China do not compete. Even today, U.S. and Chinese agricultural scientists are eager to collaborate and have much to share to tackle climate impacts and adaptation in agriculture, food safety, plant and animal diseases, and the threats to food production from invasive species.

U.S. Scientists Learn about China’s Green Revolution

With the goal of exchanging seeds and plant materials to develop higher yielding grain varieties, the first group of ten U.S. plant scientists traveled to China in August 1974. Sponsored by the Rockefeller Foundation, they were a real who’s who of the Green Revolution. The team was led by Sterling Wortman and included the Nobel Prize winning plant scientist Norman Borlaug. During their four weeks in China, they were amazed at how China, with only 0.1 hectares of arable land per person, produced enough food to feed 900 million people. They observed how China had independently developed its own Green Revolution and the U.S. scientists were eager to learn more about their research and exchange seeds and plant samples.

In 1975, stopping in Beijing to visit the new U.S. Liaison to China, George H.W. Bush, the second U.S. team of 10 entomologists traveled around China to learn more about insect pests. The scientists from eight different universities and two USDA research stations moved from Beijing to Shanghai visiting communal farms and research stations. They set their feet in four provinces - north to Jilin, south to Guangzhou, west to Shanxi and east to Jiangsu - seeing much of the country. Team leader Gordon Guyer described their dinner meeting at the Liaison’s modest home and that Bush lamented that his travel was limited to within 50 miles of Beijing. The agricultural scientists were learning more about China – especially rural China – than the diplomats.

Chinese Scientists Explore Pest Control and More

The first team of Chinese scientists visited the United States in 1973 to focus on crop pest control, preceding follow-up visits with teams covering grain, cotton, soybean, and citrus production. These visits were extremely valuable to China. So much so that when Jimmy Carter became president, the Chinese Liaison came to visit the new Secretary of Agriculture Bergland with a request to bring a group of Chinese agricultural scholars to the United States. Recounted in a 1986 interview, Secretary Bergland describes his surprise by the request and was unsure of how to host them. But his deputy of international affairs set things up. In the summer of 1978, the Chinese visitors met with Bergland with thanks, praise, and an invitation to come to China. His acceptance set off internal conflict with the national security advisor Brzezinski over who in the administration was allowed to visit China.

Regardless of the conflict, President Carter recognized the importance of bilateral agricultural collaboration and sent Bergland to China in November 1978 where they developed a memorandum on US-China Agricultural Understanding. I found the memorandum between Secretary Bergland and Minister Yang while digging through boxes of documents in the National Archives. The memorandum outlines how the agricultural exchange groups would be organized and the topics for the first two years of exchanges. The Chinese wanted to learn more about the U.S. system of research and technology transfer to the countryside. The U.S. scientists were interested in a range of crops and production techniques.

Agriculture Set the Stage for the Science and Technology Agreement

After the memorandum was signed, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Chinese Ministry of Agriculture hit the ground running. Right away, Secretary Bergland formally gained the support of the Land-Grant University system for the exchange program. Agricultural exchanges were set for 1979 on pest control and collecting seeds and plant material. U.S. agricultural scientists from USDA and eight land grant universities were the first to travel to China under the new understanding. Now more than 35 years later, over 2,100 U.S. agricultural scientists have traveled to China and a near equal number of Chinese have visited farms and laboratories in the United States. This exchange of expertise has helped both countries rise to global food superpowers.

However, the work is not done. New issues in agriculture, and the intellectual capacity of both the United States and China are needed to address food safety and security, climate resilience, and environmental issues in agriculture. On January 18, 2024 U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Vilsack met with Tang Renjian, China’s Minister of Agricultural and Rural Affairs. They discussed the importance of working together to tackle climate and food security issues. To avoid losing the future scientific and agricultural diplomacy benefits that were made possible by the Science and Technology Agreement, the two country’s representatives may want to take a breath, step back, and look to build on the success of the Agricultural Understanding to launch a new Science and Technology Agreement with a focus on shared needs rather than conflict and competition.

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