Farming in China

I’ve often been curious about the food quality here and the amount of “organic” produce you can find in China (well, ok, Shenzhen, where I live). I’ve been a little hesitant to look up any information until recently.

One of the scary things is not only about the quality of the food produced or how the food is produced, but more about how farmers are put under a lot of pressure to produce in China.  Because the government is quite localized here, it’s hard to standardize practices and ensure safety on smaller farms. Furthermore, bigger companies are able to procure more land (by negotiating with the government), probably ensuring that the smaller independent farmers can’t expand. This is because the government owns the land, so citizens don’t have land rights to rent or buy more land.  Furthermore, the lure of better jobs in the cities means that more farmers migrate into cities like Shenzhen, Beijing and China, meaning less and less people working on farms, which puts a strain on the system.  A sign of how smaller farms/ independent farmers suffer is some of the local markets here.  Many of the sellers aren’t necessarily selling their own homegrown foods anymore.  Many of them head to wholesale markets to purchase their produce. Instead of buying directly from the source, they are essentially middlemen.

Some interesting facts quoted from this site:

  • China feeds 22 percent of the world population with only 10 percent of the planet’s arable land. Land is heavily utilized for agriculture. Vegetables are planted on road embankments, in traffic triangles and right up the walls of many buildings. Even so since 1949 China has lost one fifth of its arable land.
  • Farm land is still owned and controlled by the state and leased to farmers. It can not be bought or sold only leased. Land essentially belongs to local governments, a holdover from the commune era. Reforms passed in the Deng era allowed individuals to contract land from villages. To be converted into non-agricultural land it has to be reclaimed by the government and rezoned.
  • These days farmers sign 30-year leases for the right to work a plot and but they no longer are required to pay harvest quotas or most agricultural taxes. They don’t own the land, they can’t sell it and they can’t use it for collateral on a loan.
  • Farmers typically live is a small brick house with electricity and a televison. They have no pension and want their kids to go to university but don’t know how they will pay for it. Young people don’t want to be farmers. One 21-year-old woman who left her village for a factory job told Reuters, “Nobody our age farms anymore. Nobody my age can plant a stalk. You need to leave to make real money.”
  • China has very advanced agricultural research centers and laboratories that do research and churn out reams of data on the latest fertilizers, pollution risks and genetically-engineered crops The problem is that the data and insights these researchers come up with rarely finds its way to farmers, who mostly rely on the pesticide and fertilizer salesmen to keep them informed. Even then necessity often keeps them from following directions. Villagers given instructions to use the pesticides only once every 15 days are likely to use pesticides more frequently than that if their crops are being swarmed by insects.

Farming trends here also reminds me of factory farms in the USA/Canada (though I hope not as bad) and if this trend continues in China (I’m pretty sure it is more prevalent that they admit) the people here will be worse off than some of the food scares already happening.  People outside China should be worried about food quality, because the foods you least expect actually come from here.  A lot of organic produce people buy are from China.  Whether or not this applies to export quality foods, I’ve read and heard from sources that people label products ‘organic’ because they see it as a trend and it’ll help them sell their stuff.

I would like to be more hopeful about the situation these farmers face, and that they are able to make a better living, instead of trying to do whatever they can to make a profit (which is quite small, I’ve heard from a source that what you basically pay at the supermarkets is the transportation cost of sending food to different cities).  I also wish that someday that China will be more aware of their food safety practices, though I think that will be a long way away, unless foreign purchasers put pressure (and stick to it) on them now.

Here are some good sources to read if you are interested in this issue:

Agriculture in China – has some interesting points about how farmers farm and the environmental effects of it, as well as how the government plays a role in potential food shortage

Innovations that can Ensure Food Security – interesting article about what farmers/China can do.

Exploding Watermelons Put Spotlight on Chinese Farming Practices –  one of the recent food scares highlights some of the environmental impacts farming has on the land

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