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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

China at the Agricultural Crossroads

Air Date: Week of

China's farmland is being increasingly developed for housing, factories and roads. In addition, fewer people want to stay in rural areas and work the land. The situation is becoming so acute that some experts predict China will soon be unable to feed its own people. If they become a major grain importer, experts fear world food prices could skyrocket. Lucie McNeill reports.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. From the lush rice paddies of the south to the grain belt of the northeast, farmers in China are busy once again growing the crops to feed the world's most populous nation. But this year, the clouds on the horizon are darker than usual. Factories and highways are sprouting where food used to grow, and farmers are less and less interested in growing rice because it just doesn't pay. Last year, as China's population rose, its crop production went down. Some experts are warning that soon China will have to import massive amounts of food for that growing population, and that could send world grain prices soaring. Even the country's normally upbeat leaders are admitting that agriculture is in trouble. As part of our series this month on challenges to the world's food supply, Lucie McNeill prepared this report.

(Chopping sounds)

McNEILL: For generations, Gan Huan's family has grown rice in the fertile Pearl River Delta of south China. They've hung on through war, revolution, floods and famine. But this is the last time Gan Huan works this small plot.

(Woman speaks in a Chinese dialect)

McNEILL: We have to move out, she says. The city of Gonjo is putting a subway line through here so we're losing our land. They tell us we'll get compensation and another plot elsewhere, but I'm not happy about it. Frantic development is one of the reasons why China is producing less grain these days. Just about every city is expanding. Brand new towns appear overnight in the middle of nowhere. Bulldozers strip off topsoil to make way for factories, apartment buildings, and highways. Farmland is losing out, especially in the heavily populated areas of east and south China, where soil is the most fertile.

(Chopping sounds. Woman speaks in a Chinese dialect)

McNEILL: Jesse Long knows about this first hand. Long is originally from Minnesota. For the past 7 years, he and his Shanghai-born wife have been growing Western varieties of vegetables in Shanghai's Bu Don area. Business is great, but twice already Long has had to move his farm. In a few months, he'll have to move again to make way for a cement plant.

(Chopping sounds)

LONG: It's like sitting in the middle of Central Park and watching New York City all around from each side of you. When we first came out here there was only one of these buildings that was built. Now this whole set of apartment buildings, the high rises have come in on one side and it's also on the other side, coming in. The construction to the back, that's the people's armed police academy. And we've got a chemical plant on the other side. And slowly but surely, we're getting eaten away.

(Locomotive whistle, train rolling on tracks)

McNEILL: Last year, China lost nearly 2 million acres of farm land to development, the worst in 5 years. Zou Yuchuan is head of China's State Land Administration Bureau. It's his job to protect arable land. He says Beijing has all sorts of laws and regulations on the books to do just that. But he admits local bureaucrats often can't say no to the short-term benefits of development.

YUCHUAN: (Speaks in Chinese dialect)
TRANSLATOR: In the past couple of years, some mayors and local Communist officials have been warned. Some have been disciplined and some have been demoted because they failed to preserve farm land. We have to be far-sighted and think of the coming generations. The purpose of the Communist party is to serve the people. Some officials only think about their own short-term interests and making money. But in the future what if people in their district don't have enough to eat? Their names will be cursed. Land cannot be evaluated only in economic terms because it's essential for our livelihood.

McNEILL: So far, despite the laws, the lectures, the penalties, and the demotions, the central government has been unable to stop the trend. Since the late 50s, China has lost one-fifth of its farmland. But protecting farm land alone won't ensure China's food supply. Farmers have to be willing to produce and sell the grain. And nowadays, fewer are willing. In 1978, peasants were told they could grow whatever they wanted, so long as they delivered a certain amount of grain to the state. Production went way up. Now it's leveled off; in fact, grain hasn't kept up at all with population growth. Farmers are turning away from grain production, and with 14 million new mouths to feed every year, that's an unsettling trend.

(Goats bleating)

This tract along the highway near Beijing used to be planted with corn and wheat as far as the eye can see. Now, most of it is leased to vegetable and livestock farmers. People like Xiao the Shepherd.

XIAO: (Speaks in Chinese dialect)
TRANSLATOR: It pays way better to graze sheep than grow crops. I can earn over 10,000 wan a year for my sheep. But if I work in the fields, I'd only make half of that.

McNEILL: But if everybody does like you, then who's going to grow grain? How will China feed itself?

TRANSLATOR: Oh, I don't worry about it. Now we have money. We can do whatever we like. I can go down to the store and buy as much grain as I want.

McNEILL: Development has brought higher standards of living for many in China. They have more money and they're buying meat and beer, rare treats in the past. But it takes grain to produce meat and brew beer, and that puts even more pressure on the grain crop. For the past 2 years China has had to import corn and barley from the United States. That's why some analysts are sounding the alarm. They look at the growing population that's eating a richer diet, the shrinking farm land, and the farmers who are getting out of grain production, and they say these trends add up to one thing: China cannot feed itself. As the country develops it will buy more and more grain on the world market, just like Japan did years ago. While the world grain market can easily supply Japan's import needs, these analysts say that China is a different story. If it were to start importing a lot more, that could drain world stocks and send prices into the stratosphere, something that would affect consumers all around the world. But many economists disagree. They say there's a lot of slack in the capacity of China and the world to produce grain. That research is coming up with higher-yielding varieties. And that it would only take an increase in price to pump up production.

(Telephone rings. Woman: "Good afternoon, World Bank." Speaks in Chinese dialect.)

McNEILL: Pieter Bottelier heads the World Bank mission in China. He says the country doesn't really need to feed itself.

BOTTELIER: China is short of land. It has large amounts of labor. Grain products tend to be labor extensive and capital, or land intensive. So in the longer term, it might be more advantageous for China to export textiles and shoes, and import grains. That would be the result of natural, international comparative advantages. But it would be quite wrong to assume that any development of this kind could develop in a relatively short period. If it happens it will happen very slowly and gradually, and international production and prices will adjust to it.

McNEILL: But privately, other farm experts here say this transition will be a lot more difficult. Backward conditions could cause real supply problems for many years to come. Peasants have little access to better farming techniques or improved seeds. Storage, transportation, and grain marketing are all very primitive. And water scarcity could prove a real limiting factor.

(Keyboarding sounds)

McNEILL: But by far the most serious threat to agriculture in China is politics. Anger against the government has led to peasant riots. Nick Menzies coordinates agriculture projects in China for the Ford Foundation.

MENZIES: There is unrest, though, and there's a lot of dissatisfaction, a lot of unhappiness. There's also the visible evidence of all the migrants coming into the cities. And you put all that together and it's clear that there's something wrong in rural areas. The problem is, not very many people have looked very carefully into what the problems are in agriculture, and that unrest component is probably more significant than the production line because the unrest component tells a lot about questions such as land use, land allocation, fines, fees, extortion, taxes, price structures. It tells a lot about that, and those are some of the factors that have caused the production line to flatten out, rather than just that issue of how much land is available.

McNEILL: The Chinese government has responded to supply problems with a plan to combine many small farms into larger tracts, so they can mechanize and boost productivity. Essentially, they want to recollectivize much of rural China. But that could prompt even more unrest. China has come too far on the road from Communism to private enterprise, and from a rural society to a more urban and industrial one. In this village just north of Beijing, farmer Yang Liuqi says times have changed.

(Children laughing and playing)

LIUQI: (Speaks in Chinese dialect)
TRANSLATOR: We can't go back to the old ways, the communes. It was just too rigid. Anyway, within the next 5 years this village won't exist anymore. This will be the city. The only people working the fields nowadays are women who are over 40 and stay around home. Young people aren't willing to grow grain any more; they want city jobs.

McNEILL: Mao Zedong dreamed that China could be completely self-sufficient in food. There would be no need to depend on world markets. But these children live in a country that's more open to the world, a trading nation. As they grow up, China will be exporting manufactured goods and importing more food. If they're lucky, China will overcome its farm problems, the weather will cooperate, and the nightmare scenario of massive crop failures, sky-high food prices, and starvation won't come true. If they're lucky. For Living on Earth, I'm Lucy McNeill in Beijing.



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