“As one of the four ancient civilisations: China ranks along ancient Egypt, Babylon, and India in its contribution to mankind through agriculture.”
That is one of the opening comments from a new report on the state of modern Chinese agriculture by the Chinese Academy of Sciences.
But while China may have 10,000 years of rice cultivation at its back (and gardeners will be impressed to learn that it is said to have invented the wheelbarrow), the report also makes it clear the country is no agricultural leader today.
“China is more than a hundred years behind developed countries such as the US and Japan,” it said, adding that agriculture is the economy’s “weakest link”.
The 365-page tome, which was published last month, also calculated that agricultural productivity in China is lower than half the global average and only equal to 1% of Japan’s. And though it didn’t say so directly, the conclusion was that when you have one sixth of the world’s population and only 10% of the world’s arable land, figures like that just aren’t good enough.
“Agricultural modernisation concerns the national interest… social stability, and food safety,” it said. “China’s modernisation is incomplete without agricultural modernisation.”
While China’s cities have transformed beyond recognitions in the last 30 years, China’s food production has yet to truly modernise, with as much as half of agricultural land still ploughed by hand or using animals, according to the Chinese Society for Agricultural Machinery.
In addition, most arable land is divided up into tiny family-farmed plots, the average size of which is just 0.6 hectares. Paradoxically, the government’s challenge is to get people to give up farming and join the urban workforce so that the plots can be amalgamated.
Domestic consumption would also get a boost. “Statistics show that urban residents spend 3.6 times more than rural dwellers. Urbanisation has the greatest potential for boosting domestic demand,” Li Keqiang, the man widely tipped to be China’s next premier, said in a recent essay.
Yet as readers of WiC will know, the China’s restrictive household registration system, the hukou – which the People’s Daily called “an obvious violation of the constitution” recently – makes it difficult for people born in the countryside to enjoy social services in the city.
In an essay on agricultural modernisation in Qiushi, the official journal of the Party’s Central Committee, China’s current premier Wen Jiabao acknowledged these problems and called for the government to “solve the problem of migrant households”.
Wen suggested legal reforms that would make it possible for people to retain rights to their land if they move to the city, but transfer management to professional, larger farms. The CAS report also suggests that in order to reach productivity levels approaching those of most developed countries, China needs to shed about 90% of its rural workforce.
Both CAS and Wen acknowledge that Chinese agriculture faces other problems too – such as a shortage of arable land and water. The shortfalls have been exacerbated in recent years due to pollution – of soil and water – as well as illegal construction on land classified as arable.
Legal Daily has reported recently that China is only a tiny fraction over the 1.8 billion mu (120 million hectares) minimum of arable land needed to ensure at least 95% agricultural self-sufficiency.
The country’s Land Resource Department also estimates that 10% of the country’s soil is now “poisonous” – contaminated with heavy metals and other industrial fallout.
Wen’s solution is to enforce existing environmental and conservancy laws while grand water transference schemes such as the South-North Water project are being finished. And ultimately Wen and CAS also see technology as the saviour of Chinese agriculture.
“It is imperative to develop biological technology, upgrade traditional farming techniques, increase the added value of farm products and use information technology for these industries,” Xinhua reported Wen as telling the county’s leading scientists this month.
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