Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 22 January 2020

China seeks to beef up its bread basket

China may be the world's second largest economy but its agricultural sector is distinctly pre-industrial. Hannah Gardner reports from Guli County
A farmer drives a reaping machine to harvest wheat in Teyong town, in east China’s Jiangsu province.
A farmer drives a reaping machine to harvest wheat in Teyong town, in east China’s Jiangsu province.

GULI COUNTY, CHINA // In Maoist China, Xu Jianhua, a farmer from the eastern province of Jiangsu, would have been denounced as a class enemy.

His crime would have been owning more land than what he needed to feed his family.

He would probably have been publicly humiliated for his bourgeois ways and stripped of most of his property.

Today, though, farmers like Mr Xu are getting attention from the government for an entirely different reason - they are being held up as the great hope for China's lagging agricultural sector.

"Losses have been reduced and our speed has increased, since I took over this land " said Mr Xu.

"If more farmers were to adopt our model we would be able to provide more and better food for our country."

To the developed world Mr Xu's farm is nothing special. At just over 15 hectares it is smaller than most European farms and much less well equipped.

But by Chinese standards the 200-metre-long wheat field that Mr Xu was harvesting on the morning The National visited is enormous and his use of a combine harvester, a machine that cuts and threshes crops, is cutting edge.

China may be the world's second largest economy but its agricultural sector is distinctly pre-industrial in most places.

"Chinese agriculture lags behind that of the United States, Great Britain and Japan by more than 100 years," a report by the Chinese Academy of Sciences said last summer. "Without agricultural modernisation China's modernisation will be incomplete."

More than half of China's arable land is still divided into smallholdings that measure less than 0.6 hectares and tractor usage - a key indicator of how much labour is still done by animal or by hand - is only a quarter of that of developed countries, the report said.

Perhaps the most striking figure was that 40 per cent of the population still relied on agriculture to make a living even though it only contributed 10 per cent to the county's domestic product - an illustration of the massive urban rural divide that has formed over the three decades since China's economy began to boom.

"Without a change in policy China will not be able to catch up with agriculture in the developed world this century," the report said.

Aside from being embarrassing for China's ruling Communist Party, failure to close the gap could also have massive social, economic and even political consequences.

Many of China's recent food scandals - including the mass poisoning of infants with melamine-laced baby formula in 2008 - can be linked in part to the fact that large-scale producers still have to source most of their raw materials from hundreds of small-scale farms, over whose production methods they have little control.

Another source of public dissatisfaction in recent years has been the rising price of food.

Because China has so little arable land - it is home to one sixth of the world's population but only 10 per cent of its farmable land - it has to devote much of it to growing staple crops in order to maintain food security, experts say.

This means other foods are more expensive because they are in shorter supply or have to be imported.

But the biggest concern is that, without an agrarian overhaul, China's urbanisation drive - the central component of the government's plan for continued economic growth - will fail.

Li Keqiang, the Chinese premier and architect of the country's long-term growth model, has said at least 10 million people need to move into towns and cities each year so as to contribute to the economy and to free up enough land to grow crops to feed the country.

However, as yet there is no clear plan for how this will happen.

Another issue is how to use the land that is left behind.

One solution, which has been attempted in a few provinces already, is to grant usage rights directly to agricultural corporations that have the money and expertise to boost yields quickly.

But this seems to sit uncomfortably with the leadership of the party, which did, after all, start out as a movement of workers and peasants.

The party may also be wary of companies moving into farming just to get access to land and of moving too many people off the land too quickly, Jia Xiangping from the Centre for Chinese Agricultural Policy said.

"This is something that needs to be done carefully," he said.

As a compromise, they have encouraged companies to work with farmers like Mr Xu to create so called "Family Farms" - farms run by people who have a generational connection to the land, just as in Europe and America,

Since 2007 it has been legal for individuals to increase the size of their government allotted plots by renting adjoining land left behind by people who have gone to work in the cities.

But because all of the land in China is owned by the state, farmers cannot get a mortgage on the land they are working so that they have the capital needed to make it thrive.

Mr Xu solved that problem by working with a company called Tianniang, which provides him with organic fertiliser and heavy machinery in return for Mr Xu selling them a fixed amount of rice and wheat grown to their standards.

They also provide modern agricultural training to the 37 farmers they work with and sell their products under one recognisable brand that promotes its organic qualities - a major selling point after a recent food scare involving cadmium-tainted rice.

So in tune is Tianniang with China's new model for agriculture that Li Keqiang gave it his seal of approval shortly after he became premier in March.

"You are moving in the right direction," he said. "Family farms, joint partnerships and farmers' cooperatives are the future of modern agriculture. Your experience will benefit not only Jiangsu but also the whole country."


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Updated: July 3, 2013 04:00 AM