Feeding the Hungry Giant

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?

But the potential to improve yields is definitely there. Improved varieties, better use of fertilizer, better insect control, all of these things will help to increase production. And the government programmes keep a careful eye on the supply demand equation when it comes to food production. If the production falls, subsidies appear to raise the grower prices, encouraging farmers to plant more acres. And if supply fails to meet demand, China will import.

But just what technology is available to the Chinese peasant farmer, and how can it be utilised? There are three main things that farmers can do to improve crop yields: use improved varieties, optimise soil fertility, and make the best use of available water. Two of these (varieties and fertility) can be influenced by a farmer’s decision-making process. Unfortunately water management is not always that easy. But more on that later.



China has some excellent agricultural universities. Such institutions as Nanjing Agricultural University and China Academy of Agricultural Science have excellent programmes in Agricultural Science. Chinese plant breeders are renowned for outstanding achievements in some crops. And what China does not have locally, it sources from abroad. Improved varieties in some crops are being imported from the US, Australia and the EU. One example is in the area of grass seed. As the demand for red meat and dairy products grows in China (a trend that happens as developing countries become more Westernised), farmers need to find more efficient ways of feeding animals. Improved forage grass seeds are able to improve animal production by 200% to 300%. This results in more meat and more milk!

Corn, sunflower and soybean farmers are able to access the latest developments in plant breeding technology. Hybrid crops have the potential to double yields, and there are many national and regional seed companies that are marketing advanced products. In the area of crop agronomy, Chinese scientists have a wealth of knowledge on optimum fertilisation techniques, and China produces massive amounts of fertiliser. But can the average village farmer afford this technology, and is he getting the information that he needs? Unfortunately, Chinese agricultural extension programmes are very weak. There is excellent information available to the farmers in the public domain, and in the Agricultural Institutions, but getting it out to the farmer is another story. And information and research is absolutely useless unless it is disseminated to those who need it.

But how can farmers ever afford to pay for the new technology that is available to them? Village farmers are poor.

It was a hot steamy day as we squatted beside the soybean crop in a village in Southern China. The crop should have looked better than it did. I was puzzled. It was irrigated, the soil was good, and the farmer had used fertilizer. What was wrong? I had a theory. "Did you innoculate the seed?" I asked the farmer through an interpreter. Puzzled, he looked blankly at me. I pulled up a plant and had a look at the roots. Instead of the masses of little nitrogen producing nodules that enable the soybean plant to maximise production, there were hardly any. Bacteria stimulate these nodules, and if there are not enough suitable bacteria in the soil, the seed needs to be treated with them before planting. This is called innoculating the seed, and this was not being done. Basic soybean production technology was not being given to the farmers by their local Departments of Agriculture. I arranged for the village to receive some innoculants for their next soybean crop, and the results were very significant: rows of big, green, strong, happy soybean plants! And smiling farmers, too.

But how can farmers ever afford to pay for the new technology that is available to them? Village farmers are poor. We sat huddled around an open cooking fire inside a yurt in north-west China. There were eight of us: an Aussie, a Brit, two Americans, and a family of four. The family was poor. Their entire worldly possessions strung around the walls of their felt (compressed goat wool) round house. A house that was smaller than my bedroom. They didn’t speak any English, and we didn’t speak Chinese, but they had invited us in to have a meal with them. What amazing hospitality. The food was basic but tasty, a sort of vegetable stew. The farmer’s goats bleated in the cold open pasture surrounding the yurt. There was no meat in the pot, just some eggs. How come? I had seen no chickens. Through sign language we determined that they had traded the eggs at a local market for some of their products. I thought about the countless banquets that I had experienced in China with government and industry officials, tables groaning with food, 16-course meals, the bottles of fiery Chinese spirits, and the plates of leftover food. Those leftovers could have fed this family for at least a week. And I felt sad about the disparity between the rich and the poor. We paid for our meal; how could we not?

Unless new ways of doing business are developed for the Chinese village farmer, change will be slow, and poverty will remain. Radical change is needed to give the farmers better access to markets, to make technology more available, more affordable, and to better educate them. Micro financing programmes need to be put into place to allow them to purchase better inputs. But there are some refreshing new approaches that are being tried. One such programme is that of the ecovillage network.

The ecovillage (sheng tai cun in Chinese) is a vehicle for establishing partnerships at a grassroot level, for the economic development of rural communities in China and the preservation of the environment. The ecovillage network provides systems that enhance the ability of farming communities in China to create both economic and environmental benefits. The basic building block of the ecovillage network is the Chinese village, and the strategy is designed to accommodate the trade of services and goods both into and out of the network of member villages. The network operates on a commercial basis. It controls its own brands, market channels and intellectual property. Members of the ecovillage network share market information, supply and distribution channels, a common business management system and an international development and research programme.