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Agriculture in China

Feeding the masses

by Peter Hauff

In brief

By 2013, two new genetic varieties shall keep on increasing China’s rice production

By 2013, two new genetic varieties shall keep on increasing China’s rice production

A fifth of humankind lives in China, but the world’s most populous country only has around 10 % of the ­planet’s farmland. According to a study published by the Asia Foundation, a non-governmental German organisation, organic farming is unlikely to take off in the People’s Republic.

China obviously has agriculture-related problems. Pesticides, herbicides and fertiliser contaminate soil and groundwater, while urban growth and erosion reduce arable land. At the same time, inexpensive imports from Brazil are making soy plantations unprofitable. The wealth gap between cities and rural areas is increasing, and food scandals outrage the people. Nonetheless, the Chinese government continues to ramp up large-scale agriculture, banking on gen-technology and promoting hybrid rice varieties.

Beijing hardly sees any other option, the Asia Foundation study argues. The title is “Landwirtschaft in China: Zwischen ­Selbstversorgung und Weltmarktintegration” (Agriculture in China: between self-sufficiency and global market integration). The study assesses a complex scenario: Chinese politicians are mainly concerned about feeding their own 1.3 billion people from domestic production. Their goal is to import at most five percent of the food consumed, and producing the rest domes­tically. World trade in food trade is hardly called into question. Chinese leaders understand, however, that corruption is a huge problem in many provinces. To the author, Uwe Hoering, it seems only a matter of time before real interest groups that speak for farmers and consumers come about.

Record harvests with chemical input

Hoering discusses which problems the ­People’s Republic has solved and still faces. The 61-year-old journalist points out that many rural families are being uprooted. The “Golden 80s” – when China did away with collective farming – have become popular memory. Back then, 250 million family businesses replaced government-controlled production brigades. By using fertiliser and pesticides at levels unsurpassed internationally, Chinese agriculture raced from one record to the next. But 10 years ago, the tables turned. Today, less wheat is being planted because it became less profitable than growing vegetables and cotton or raising pigs. Nonetheless, Beijing sticks to the principle of self-sufficiency and is subsidising wheat plantations. As a result, expenditure on agriculture tripled to 317 billion Yuan from 2000 to 2006. Nonetheless, the share of agriculture in gross domestic product has been dropping, from 40 % in 1970 to 11 % in 2007.

Launched in 1958, the Hukou system prohibited most farmers from moving to large cities until 2003. Those who disobeyed, lost their food en­titlements, their residential and work permits, their right to ­marry and the right to use hospitals and schools. Global competition has hit rural people especially hard, however. It no longer pays to keep chickens; large-scale food production dominates the market. According to Hoering, “farmers are pawns”. Half of the Chinese population lives in the country, however, and protests in these areas are becoming more common. While western countries hardly take notice, Beijing’s policymakers are certainly taking new interest in rural matters.

The Asia Foundation calls for dialogue between European and Chinese agricultural policymakers. Hoering adds that ­reforming EU agrarian policy would be a good starting point, and relevant topics of dialogue should include organic exports to Europe and China’s hunt for land in Africa. In China, as in the EU, biofuel demand has a potential of crowding out food production, and climate protection is another reason to share ideas.

Peter Hauff