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

China's Dilemma

Air Date: Week of

Reese Erlich reports from Shanghai about one of the most acute problems in the world’s most populous country: the conflict between the need for land to grow food for its billion-plus people and the pressure to convert much of the same land to industrial and residential use.


CURWOOD: Within the next 10 years, more than half the world's people will live in cities. For some, that urbanization is a positive trend. It's seen as taking pressure off rural agricultural lands. But it also means that farm land near population centers is being consumed at a rapid rate. In New Delhi, India, for example, 50 acres of productive crop land are swallowed by development every day. But it's in China where some predict that the effects of urbanization will first be felt in the food supply. Only a short while ago, China was a nation of farmers. But now, so much of China's farm land is disappearing under its cities that some fear it may not be able to feed itself. We asked reporter Reese Ehrlich to examine China's land crunch. He filed this report from Shanghai.

(Music with voice-over: "In this 26 months, a lot of changes have taken place. In the past 2 years...")

EHRLICH: Chinese government officials proudly show this promotional video on a big screen TV, hoping to attract foreign investors to a new industrial park across from the old center of Shanghai. This once sleepy farming community now bustles with earth movers and backhoes, constructing freeways, office skyscrapers, and luxury housing. This scene is repeated throughout eastern China as the country struggles to provide jobs and housing for its 1.2 billion people. The Chinese agricultural ministry says on net, China loses about 67,000 acres of farm land each year to industrialization. Zhang Hong Yu is head of research for the Agricultural Ministry. He says the government is concerned about the loss, and wants to make sure China can feed itself.

YU: (Speaks in Chinese)
TRANSLATOR: We have a very straight policy on controlling and stabilizing the total area of farm land in China. Our country must not have less than 250 million acres of farm land. That's our target. True, some farm land is given to industry, but we continuously cultivate new crop land. We have also succeeded in increasing the yield on existing arable land. China will still be able to feed itself well into the next century.

EHRLICH: US officials here agree with the Chinese. John O'Connell is the agricultural counselor for the US Embassy in Beijing. He frequently travels to rural areas in the interior of China, and says seeing only the east coast cities can be misleading.

O'CONNELL: Around the fast-growing east coast cities, there is a lot of acreage being taken out of agricultural production and being put into factories or residential units and other uses. And it's leaving agriculture permanently. But if you look at the total acreage in China, it's a fairly insignificant amount.

EHRLICH: But other observers are more concerned about the ability of the world's most populous country to feed itself. Lester Brown is President of the Washington-based World Watch Institute and editor of a new book on population and food supply. He says China is losing far more crop land than the government admits. Some of the most productive land is in the fastest growing industrial regions.

BROWN: Most of the people and the crop land are concentrated in a strip about 1,000 miles wide along the eastern and southern coasts. This is where industrialization of necessity will take place. So it means that the competition between industry and agriculture for land will be intense. China will not be able to feed itself in the years to come. Indeed, there is a good possibility that they will develop a large grain deficit in the years ahead.

EHRLICH: Many US analysts don't share that dire prediction, but some are worried about longer-run problems. Chinese farmers have increased land productivity largely through the heavy use of chemical inputs. One soon-to-be-published US study found that pesticide use per acre in China's east coast regions is about 10 times the world average. US agriculture attaché John O'Connell.

O'CONNELL: Right now the Chinese farmer's getting a relatively high yield from his efforts, but the use of fertilizers and chemical inputs such as pesticides is extremely high. And in my opinion, I'm not sure that this is sustainable for the long run.

EHRLICH: Chinese agriculture officials say they are also worried about overloading the land with chemicals in an effort to squeeze out more food. So China is experimenting with some innovative combinations of modern and traditional Chinese methods.

(Sounds of scraping)

EHRLICH: In Chenzhen township near Shanghai, farmers are busy digging and chipping bricks to construct a new building. Pan Hui Ching says that the size of her collective farm has shrunk 40% as the town industrialized. But it hasn't significantly affected production.

CHING: (Speaks in Chinese)
TRANSLATOR: The yield is almost the same as before. Now we grow vegetables in hothouses year-round. In the past, we grew ordinary vegetables. But now we grow high quality specialty vegetables. We do use chemical fertilizer, but we use traditional Chinese herbs to kill pests and bats. This kind of herbs don't harm people's health.

EHRLICH: It remains to be seen whether these kinds of techniques can be applied to other crops, particularly grain. But even squeezing more food out of less land through chemical or natural methods might not keep China self-sufficient. According to Chinese statistics, absolute production of grain has steadily risen since the late 1980s, but per capita production has fallen slightly. That's because despite successful population control efforts, the country still must feed some 24 million new mouths each year. If the trend of less farm land and more people continues, China may have to buy more grain on the world market. That could mean tighter supplies and higher prices for the rest of the world. For Living on Earth, I'm Reese Ehrlich in Shanghai.



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