25 Under 25: interview with Aily Zhang

“How China is going to support [its] population with its current agricultural practices is a huge ecological and societal issue,” Aily Zhang, a Yale junior and San Francisco native tells China Hands. “Somehow, China has to figure out how to maximize production on scarce arable land, and it’s going to be a challenge. Right now, people use chemical fertilizers and other intensive agricultural management styles that aren’t sustainable in the long-run.” Promoting support for sustainable and just agricultural and environmental solutions is Zhang’s mission.

The double-major in environmental studies and East Asian studies is currently spearheading the launch of “A Time To Grow,” an exchange program designed to connect American and Chinese college students on agricultural and environmental issues. Launching the project “came from my realization that there are a lot of young people who are passionate about environmental issues and social justice in China but they don’t know how to apply it to their immediate lives.”

Zhang’s decision to start a career around environmental issues was not a “very conscious, epiphanic decision,” although she credits her first visit to the Chinese countryside in middle school as a formative one. “That’s when my eyes were opened to inequality.” What initially began as an interest in development work transitioned to a China-specific focus once she got to Yale and joined the Yale-China Association. She is also the president of Yale’s Leadership Institute.

“I think that there needs to be more people teaching people about sustainable farming practices, land use, resource use, and also environmental relations. Right now in China,  there are a lot of agricultural universities that are very technical, which is great, but the issue with that is that they teach a lot of conventional intensive agricultural practices, and that needs to change.”

“It’s interesting to see how much has changed [in China] just in the short span of my own life, and how much is still a work in progress,” Zhang comments. After graduation, Aily plans to realize her ambition of launching an open-source start-up that focuses on sharing agricultural best practices and pursuing a career in academia.

Among the many inspirations she cites, she is particularly fond of Shi Yan, considered the leader of the sustainable food movement in China. She also expresses admiration for local organizers in China, people “who maybe will never be known internationally for their work but whom I think are really inspiring.”

One thought

Leave a Reply