China vignettes 1 – impressions

Astounding 1600 yr old rice terraces, expanding cities, surprising labour shortages, huge organic vegetable production by Guangzhou, small village plots, recent science on soils, water and roots. These are the topics running round my head as I wait for the plane home. Almost 2 weeks here, three very different places, long bus journeys and plane rides, intense discussions, frequent, excellent multi course meals, all with a good range of vegetarian dishes. Frequent toasts during some of these meals. Challenges and contradictions, friendliness…

That was all I managed to write as I was waiting for my flight to be called at Beijing Airport at the end of September 2012, after the first of two visits to China last year. While in China I had neither the time nor access to blog about what I saw until now.

This first visit was a trip in three very different parts. It began in Guangzhou (formerly Canton), a huge city of around 15 million on the Pearl River Delta. I stayed on the campus of the South China Agricultural University. Its 42,000 students all live on campus – nearly all are undergraduates and they live four to a room in large tower blocks around the green, landscaped campus. Walking round you can see their clothes drying on the balconies in the warmth of this part of China – on a similar latitude to north Vietnam, and close to Hong Kong, which if just a few hours away by road or train.


Entrance to University, landscaping on campus and student accommodation

Some current concerns

A series of lectures and field visits over a few days gave a glimpse into current concerns. In the past 20 years, China has been a net food exporter for 17 years. Its agricultural growth rate was 4.4 times that of its population growth over the past three decades. Cultivatable land has been falling but the government has set a red line lower limit of 1.8bn mu (120m ha – 1 ha = 15mu). It has also set a target of 95% grain and nearly 100% overall food self-sufficiency (but this term may be misleading as it seems this does not cover feedstuffs, as soya imports, for example, have been rocketing). It is also investing heavily in agricultural R&D and in the agricultural sector in things such as irrigation and support for farmer cooperatives.

While rural poverty has greatly declined since the late 1978s, in 2007 there were still 128 million people living on less than $1/day – 2300 Yuan/year. There has also been a massive rural migration over the past 30 years with 280 million rural migrants from a total number of rural labourers of around 500m. About half the migrants are permanent, half seasonal, with most rural families having someone with a job off the farm sector. This has led to an aging farming population and feminization of agriculture, with 78% of the total agricultural labourers women in 2008, with an average age of 50. Moreover, farmer incentives for grain production were said to be low with labour constraints becoming a major issue – something I heard in the field as well as the lecture theatre. Yet the bulk of China’s food still comes from these small farmers.

More generally, there is a growing and huge difference in per capita GDP across China – from 1000-2000 Y in the poorest three provinces to 9000-10000 in Beijing and Shanghai and over 30,000 in the Hong Kong and Macau. In general the east coastal regions are wealthier than the central, western and S Western provinces (See map).


Currently China uses – very inefficiently according to presentations I heard in Beijing – , we were told, over 50% of the world’s annual fertilizer supply with agricultural pollution accounting for between 35-50% of the total pollution in China (however, other estimates put total use around 30%). Agriculture and the agro-chemical industries account for 15% of fossil fuel use, 15-18% of GHG emissions with emissions from N-fertiliser production and use accounting for 30 % of agricultural emission, and 5% of total GHG emissions in China.

Yield increases have been flattening off, especially in maize and rice, and the genetic base has been narrowing. For example, in maize five dominant inbred lines account for over 60% of the total. Research in SW China has shown farmers are seeing increasing climate variations – droughts, extreme weather, and new pests.

All this has led to a range of new policies and laws from the central government such as

  • The Circular Economy Law, 2003
  • Natural Resource Saving and Environment friendly  agriculture, 2005
  • Ecological Civilization  Development Strategy in 2007 – Multiple functions of Agriculture, for sustainable development
  • Farmer Cooperative Law in 2008
  • Green economy and green agriculture, related regulations 2010, 2011The big issues seem to arise in implementing these laws and effecting change on the ground.Next: – water

About geofftansey

I curate the Food Systems Academy, a free, on-line, open education resource to transform our food systems. I am also a member of the Food Ethics Council and chaired the Fabian Commission on Food and Poverty, which reported in 2015.
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