Feeding the Hungry Giant

BY DAVE HOLMAN
Jan 11, 2009

How will China, a nation with 22% of the world’s population but with only 9% of the world’s arable land, continue to feed her people?

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Little red taxis — they were everywhere. Blowing their horns. Weaving in and out of the traffic. Scaring me. And the bikes! Wherever I looked, little red taxis and bikes — my first and lasting impression of Beijing in 1995. And people! People all around me — people, people, people. All busy going somewhere. Doing something. Eating. Walking. Cycling. Eating. Did I say eating? Oh and can the Chinese eat! They do love their food. Noodles, rice dumplings, steamed fish, wok-fried pork and snow peas, deep-fried chicken and chillis and hundreds of other tasty delights served in literally thousands of restaurants. Big fancy restaurants. Noisy family restaurants. Tiny street-side cafes. Vendors on bikes. Little boys selling sliced pineapples. Brightly dressed, elegant ladies beckoning, "Come inside, Sir. Our food is the best". And in I go; bewildered by the hundreds of menu items, things I have never heard of. But I am sure they are good.

And so this massive city of 15 million people feeds itself day in and day out as it has done for centuries. But feeding Beijing is a minor job compared to the enormity of feeding China. This gigantic nation of 1.3 billion people contains 22% of the world’s population. But with only 9% of the world’s arable land, how do they do it? I pondered this question flying back from one of China’s most Western cities, Kashir. And I gazed down from 10,000 m at the desolate expanses of Western China, where thousands of square kilometres are barren and desolate, unfit for agriculture. They are the source of dust storms that can bring a city to its knees. They can be attributed to several factors including wind and drought, but more likely the rapid spread of desertification caused by the cutting down of China’s forests during the Cultural Revolution. Chairman Mao’s desire to see China become the global leader in iron production saw massive deforestation to feed the hungry blast furnaces that had sprung up all over the country. This destruction, coupled with subsequent overgrazing and over-farming has placed serious pressure on the concept of sustainable agriculture in north-west China. One serious issue is the loss of soil. It has been estimated that more than 2 billion tonnes of soil are washed annually into the Yangtze and Yellow Rivers, making the region one of the world’s most vulnerable soil erosion areas.

Some of the more recent estimates have calculated that China’s fertile lands cover 130 million hectares, only 0.11 hectare for each person in China, compared with 0.73 hectare for every American. Additionally, in recent years China’s population has been increasing by about 15 million people a year. But with the massive urban growth that China is currently experiencing, rural areas are being encroached on. It has been estimated that China is losing about 400,000 hectares of agricultural land annually. And when that issue is coupled with global warming, massive erosion from windstorms and the increasing pollution from industrialisation, one has to wonder how China will handle this major challenge. And how will she feed her people?

But one thing is for sure, she will. China has been feeding herself for centuries. And as far back as the 13th century, Chinese farmers relied on advanced irrigation systems and innovative double cropping techniques to provide food for more than 100 million people. And one only has to travel on the trains to get a feeling for how they do it: village agriculture coupled with the most amazing utilisation of space that one can ever see. Travelling on the train from Nanjing to Shanghai gave me a taste of that. There were little vegetable plots the entire length of the journey and they came right up to the edge of the tracks! Little old ladies hunched over with their water pails across their shoulders paying tender care to their cabbages, onions, peppers and potatoes.

But the village is where we need to turn to really see how China will feed itself. Because whichever way you look at it, China faces an extraordinary challenge in feeding its people. 94% of China’s people live in the Eastern 48% of the country, and this same 48% encompasses 86% of the arable land. Much of the rest of China is desert, grassland, mountains and high plateaus that are much less suitable for cultivation. The amount of cultivated land in the north-west is constrained by low rainfall and a lack of irrigation, and the area lags far behind the rest of China in economic development. So what about those villages?

The figures are extraordinary. China has 737,429 village units housing over 900 million people (according to China’s 1999 population statistics). So on average, over 1,000 people per village. Each village represents about 1,000 Mu (or approximately 75 hectares). And each farmer looks after approximately one Mu (1/13th of a hectare). From this plot of land, the farmer has to not only feed his family, but also sell the produce to generate his annual income. Many of the villages are very basic in terms of facilities. I have been to some of them. Running water is not always available. Open pit latrines are still used. Plowing with animals is still common. It is not unusual for a whole family (including grandparents) to live in a couple of rooms.

Of course there are more affluent villages, especially those in the East Coast areas. But many villages are poor, and verging on subsistence farming. However, hard work coupled with intensive farming techniques produce massive quantities of food. Estimates range between 400 million tonnes and 500 million tonnes of grain per year. Technology is improving, albeit slowly.

This gigantic nation of 1.3 billion people contains 22% of the world’s population. But with only 9% of the world’s arable land, how do they do it?