Feeding a Populous Country

April 27th, 2012 | Beijing Review

A shortage of labor and land holds back Chinese agriculture

China’s grain imports in 2011 surpassed 61 million tons, indicating that its overall self-sufficiency rate in grain was less than 90 percent.

For the past few years, China has insisted that, to ensure national food security, 95 percent is the bottom line of the country’s grain self-sufficiency requirement.

“But now the volume of imported grain has reached 10.7 percent of the domestic grain output. I am afraid this will affect grain security if the imported amount keeps increasing,” said Chen Xiwen, Director of the Office for the Communist Party of China (CPC) Central Committee’s Leading Group on Rural Work, in March.

The supply of other major agricultural produce in China also depends increasingly on the international market. According to Customs statistics, China imported about 4 million tons of corn from the United States and 52.6 million tons of soybeans from overseas markets in 2011.

To avoid becoming too reliant on imports, Chen suggested that the country increase its grain output by protecting arable land and further improving agriculture through science and technology.

Preserving farmland

Despite the country’s enormous demand for grain, farmland in China has shrunk over the past decade.

According to the Ministry of Land and Resources (MLR), China’s farmland has shrunk by more than 8 million hectares since 1997. In August last year, China had less than 121.7 million hectares of arable land, MLR figures showed.

To ensure grain security, China has set a “redline” to guarantee its arable land never falls below 120 million hectares.

Land use sanctioned by local governments to construct projects such as golf courses, railways and industrial parks, is an obstacle to the nation’s farmland preservation, according to the ministry.

“Local governments’ reliance on land transfer as a major revenue source poses a threat to the country’s grain security,” Chen said. He pointed out that some local governments are using the name “land reform” to expropriate arable land, causing the amount of available arable land to decrease in quantity and quality.

According to the MLR, the area of land use projects that violate state farmland preservation policies surged 11 percent year on year to 16,400 hectares in the first nine months of 2011.

Environmental pollution from the excessive use of agricultural chemicals and the inappropriate disposal of heavy metal has also taken its toll.

Heavy metal pollution has so far damaged approximately 10 percent of the country’s farmland and caused the loss of 12 million tons of grain every year, according to research by the Institute of Geographic Sciences and Natural Resources Research of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS).

In 2011, China restored a total of 300,000 hectares of farmland and developed 4 million hectares of high-quality farmland, according to MLR data.

The ministry plans to add 27 million hectares of high-quality farmland throughout the country by the end of 2015. “The Central Government has attached great importance to preserving farmland and local governments have also enhanced their efforts to protect farmland in recent years,” Xu said.

Less attractive business

Li Qiang, Dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at Tsinghua University, said that the outflow of young labor, including those with technological abilities from rural areas has also become a main obstacle to China’s agricultural development.

In recent years, with continuous price hikes, the cost of farming has risen. The rising cost of labor, land and agricultural materials such as pesticides and fertilizers has squeezed the profits of farmers and greatly affected their willingness to plant crops, although the Central Government has taken measures since 2006 to lower taxation on the farming sector, increase farmers’ income and support construction of agricultural infrastructure.

“Since farming is less profitable these days, more and more young farmers have left home seeking jobs in cities,” said Zheng Fengtian, a professor at the School of Agricultural Economics and Rural Development of the Renmin University of China in Beijing.

Statistics from the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) showed that China’s urban population exceeded its rural population for the first time at the end of 2011, accounting for 51.27 percent of the country’s total.

Official figures show that China now has about 150 million migrant workers, 60 percent of whom are aged 30 or under. This group of laborers, born in the 1980s and 1990s, are better educated than their parental generation.

However, a survey conducted by Beijing Normal University last year showed that only 7.7 percent of young migrant workers and 13.3 percent of older workers want to return to the countryside. The proportion of the population engaged in agriculture dropped to 38.1 percent in 2011, according to NBS figures.

“A large amount of arable land is being farmed by women and the elderly left behind in rural areas,” said Tang Rennin, Deputy Director of the Office for the CPC Central Committee’s Leading Group on Rural Work.

With capable farmers moving to cities, more and more rural farmland is being left uncultivated. An MLR survey showed that about 2 million hectares of arable land in China are in disuse each year.

On March 26, the Institute of Geographic Sciences and Natural Resources Research of the CAS released a report on rural development, urging the country to make full use of rural land and infrastructure abandoned by farmers who move to cities to find work.

“The untended land and infrastructure are becoming a major obstacle for the coordinated development of urban and rural areas,” the report said.

The institute’s surveys showed that a huge amount of rural land that was originally taken over for housing building now lies idle, and the use of land in many areas is highly inefficient.

The report estimated that 7.6 million hectares of land can be released for reuse if the country improves its rural construction land management and releases untended areas for farming and forestry.

“Up to one third of the land in traditional agricultural regions is not in use, being occupied by empty houses and abandoned farmland,” said Liu Yansui, author of the report.

The number of rural residents could fall to 280 million by 2020, from 300 million now, according to the report.

The report urged the government to incorporate the management of “hollow villages” and optimized distribution of rural land into its general strategy to protect farmland and improve people’s livelihoods.

According to the report, 16.5 million hectares of land have been allocated to farmers as residential land, which can be used by farmers to build houses, but they are not allowed to transfer it to others if they move.

“Most villagers would return the land if they could receive compensation,” said Liu Weidong, a researcher with the institute.

Survey results in east China’s Shandong Province show that about 90 percent of villagers think abandoned residential land is a waste of resources, while nearly 60 percent said they would be willing to return the land if they were adequately compensated.

In a pilot project being carried out in southwest China’s Chongqing, villagers can trade their residential land after reclamation.

However, Li Maosong, Director of the Agriculture Information Office of the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences, believes it is very likely that most of the idle land in rural areas, especially those that are not far from cities, will be developed for construction of residential housing and shopping centers, instead of being used as farmland.

“More and more rural residents are shunning agricultural life and heading for cities. Therefore, it is impossible to develop much of the idle land for agricultural production,” he said.

The growing exodus of rural residents has not only led to more and more farmland being left unattended, but it has also caused a brain drain in the countryside.

In March, 15 academicians with the CAS and the Chinese Academy of Engineering submitted a joint letter to state leaders, warning that China would face a dearth of farmers unless some strategic measures are taken to stop the new rural generation abandoning agricultural work.

“The most significant measure is to reduce the income gap between farmers and non-agricultural workers,” Zheng said.

China has strict price controls on grain. “In a country with nearly one fifth of the world’s population, grain price control is vital to social stability. But the policy today has become a hindrance to people sticking to farm work,” Zheng said.

Zheng suggested that the government should increase subsidies to farmers in order to encourage them to work the land.

Currently the subsidies given to grain farmers are about 1,200 yuan ($190) per hectare. “The subsidy is too low,” Zheng said. “For those farmers who have a large area of farmland, the subsidies might be meaningful but in China, most rural residents are small-scale farmers.”

In early March, Premier Wen Jiabao said in his Government Work Report to the session of the National People’s Congress, that the Central Government will allocate 1.2 trillion yuan ($190 billion) this year to develop the agricultural industry and the country’s rural areas, an increase of 186.8 billion yuan ($30 billion) from last year.

The premier said that China would continue to raise the average minimum purchase price of wheat and rice by 148 yuan ($23.46) and 320 yuan ($50.72) per ton this year. In addition, he pledged that the government would continue to increase agricultural subsidies and special subsidies would be given to farmers if fuel prices rose, as fuel has become indispensable for mechanical farming.

According to the Ministry of Agriculture, in the first two months of this year, the Central Government earmarked 132.5 billion yuan ($21 billion) for various agricultural subsidies.

Zheng also calls on the government to introduce farming studies as part of compulsory education and provide agricultural training to the young rural generation after school.

“In major grain producing areas such as Henan Province in central China, less than 20 percent of local high school graduates go to college. It’s essential to offer farming skill training that meets local conditions while nurturing young people’s interest in agricultural production,” he said.

Tang with the Office of the CPC Central Committee’s Leading Group on Rural Work said that the country will train more professional farmers and lure others back from urban areas to contribute to agricultural production and the rural economy.

He said that a series of preferential policies, such as credit and tax supports, would be given to the young generation of farmers to lure them back to rural areas to develop modern farming or even set up private farms with advanced technologies.

In its first policy document this year, which was issued on February 1, the Chinese Government pledged to provide more training on science and technology in rural areas to produce professionals in the agricultural sector to facilitate growth.

During his March visit to Henan, Premier Wen said that guidance offered by agricultural experts, as well as farmers’ hard work, is the key to a good harvest.

In Huoqiu, a county in east China’s Anhui Province, 32 professional crop-protection teams have been set up with training in agriculture to help farmers in their fields and offer advice. Many provinces are now attempting to learn from the experience.

With adequate techniques and marketing expertise, farmers can make significant revenue. In north Beijing’s Changping District, strawberry planting has become a prosperous business under the guidance of professionals and has brought wealth to local farmers. According to local authorities, farmers can earn 15,000 yuan ($2,377) from a greenhouse each year.

Zhang Taolin, Vice Minister of Agriculture, said in March that, in order to guarantee the cultivation of new, hi-tech-minded farmers, the government will increase its spending on agricultural education and training.

“The future of farming depends on well-educated professionals who have a good grasp of agriculture and marketing techniques,” Zheng said.

By Yin Pumin

Category: Featured Articles, Inside China