The thin red line

Recent drought resuscitates debate in Beijing about ‘food security’

The thin red line

Growth industry

Pre-modern societies used ceremonial rain dances to bring a good harvest. In China, the Weather Modification Office has a different technique. Earlier this month, it sent rockets filled with silver iodide to seed rain clouds over the drought-hit north. It led to the worst snowstorms in over half a century, killing 40 and causing $659 million in economic losses.

But there was also a payoff: the snow brought water to the region’s parched wheat fields. Much more rain is needed.

Drought isn’t the only problem threatening the country’s food security. China feeds 20% of the world’s population on 9% of its arable land. But the available land supply continues to shrink in the drive for economic development.

If history is any judge, the cost of running short of food is high. Recurring famines caused peasant-led rebellions that contributed to the fall of nearly every Chinese dynasty. The Communist Party itself came to power on the back of a peasant revolution promising to feed the country.

For the past three decades, it has kept that promise. China is largely self-sufficient in grains. The number of malnourished dropped by 55 million to 123 million people in the period between 2000 and 2005, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation.

But high food prices worldwide in 2008 gave concerns over food security a much higher profile. A combination of bad weather and an over-reliance on imported food saw food prices surge. Official Chinese statistics showed prices rising by as much as 21% during the year.

“There will be no food crisis for China in the short and mid-term,” explains China Agricultural University President Ke Bingsheng, “long-term food security will depend on the protection of farmland.”

But the arable land quota is now dangerously close to the government’s ‘red line’ of 120 million hectares. At least six million hectares have been lost since 2000, bringing the total to just 121.7 million at the beginning of this year.

Premier Wen Jiabao has said the government will “adhere to and apply the strictest possible systems for protecting arable land and economizing on the use of land, and do everything in our power to keep the total amount of arable land above the red line of 120 million hectares.” But the provincial officials who implement the land policies often have different incentives.

Land sales are an important source of funds for provincial budgets, which ran a deficit of nearly $100 billion in the first nine months of last year.

Officials can also benefit personally from changing land use designations, or pocketing part of the compensation due to farmers whose land is expropriated. Corruption in ‘urban construction projects’ accounts for 40% of bribery cases taken on by Chinese prosecutors this year, according to state prosecutors.

Farmers are the biggest losers, but they often lack recourse. Some travel to Beijing to petition the central government. Others protest at home.

Earlier this month villagers from Li’an in Guangdong province rallied against plans to redevelop 260 hectares of farmland, according to the Nanfang Rural News. “We have never seen the written agreement of the land requisition,” said local villager Huang Yaniu. He claims they have not received compensation either.

The central government has repeatedly tried to crackdown on illegal land projects. A construction official from Zhejiang province was recently handed an 18 year sentence, in part for abusing his power in land requisition.

The Ministry of Land and Resources has also launched a hotline for reporting land abuse, and is auditing the work of provincial governors, who were made responsible for protecting arable land last year.

The battle to hold the red line has begun.

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