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?

One example of ecovillage in operation is a project in South China for the production of vegetables and cattle. This project is centred on Pozai Village in Southern Guangdong Province. Pozai has approximately 1,000 residents. Starting four years ago, Pozai was selected to develop a pasture/livestock/vegetable production model suitable for the far southern regions of China. The idea behind the Pozai model is to provide a balance between short- and long-term cash flows to the village farmers, together with rebuilding of badly degraded soils that had been overworked in sugar cane production.

Concurrently, in Beitian Village, Shanxi province, work commenced to develop a village-based pasture seeds production industry, to produce seeds suitable for planting forage crops in Pozai and elsewhere. Whilst the two production projects have been developing, the ecovillage marketing network has been seeking out markets for likely output products and feeding this information back to the villagers. Pozai is now negotiating with a Malaysian company to produce live cattle for export and several food companies who want certified chemical-free vegetables. Beitian is selling seeds to Pozai and negotiating supply contracts with other companies. In both locations, the condition of the soil is improving.

It is a bold, sophisticated and clever approach that can give Chinese villages access to more global markets, and suppliers of agricultural inputs access to a massive market. If successful, the ecovillage network could revolutionise the way that agricultural business is conducted in China. It has a long way to go, but baby steps can lead to marathons.

Water. How much we take it for granted. It has been estimated that it takes 1,000 tonnes of water to produce one tonne of wheat. And China is running out of it. In fact China’s Ministry of Water Resources has publicly stated that China’s water shortages will hit a dangerous limit by the year 2030. And the fact is that like its arable land distribution, China’s water resources are not balanced between the northern and southern parts, creating severe shortages in certain areas. Statistics show that more than 80% of the country’s water resources are distributed in the Yangtze River valleys and areas south of the Yangtze. But to the north of the Yangtze is 59% of the country’s arable land, and 44% of the population. Clearly these imbalances will need to be addressed. At the farmer level, there must be rapid and significant change. The common practice of flood irrigation is extremely inefficient with major losses from run-off and evaporation. Farmers will need to introduce new techniques such as sprinklers or drip irrigation. Drought tolerant crop varieties will need to be introduced. At the urban level, excess water charges need to be increased, and industries forced to become more water efficient. But these things come with a cost, and somebody will have to pay the price. Perhaps the city dwellers need to start paying more for their food? Paying what food is really worth could help alleviate poverty at the farmer level.

I sat drinking tea with Liu Haidong. His wife had used their best teacups. We sat hunched around a small table in his humble village home. Liu was the village head. We were chatting through my interpreter.


"What do you want, more than anything else, for your village?" I asked him. "Clean water", he said without even thinking about it. His answer surprised me, because farmers anywhere else in the world would say "more yield and higher prices".

"What about improved yields?" I asked him. "Of course," he said, "but without clean water there will be no future for our children." I nodded slowly.

'What do you want, more than anything else, for your village?' I asked him. 'Clean water', he said without even thinking about it.

Unfortunately, apart from the water issue, village agriculture is being faced with a new set of problems. The next generation is getting itchy feet as they see the opportunities to get better-paying construction jobs in Shanghai and Beijing. And farming is hard work and underpaid. The sons are leaving the villages seeking greener pastures elsewhere. Sometimes they come home disillusioned and still unmarried. But much of the burden of farming is falling on an older generation as it is in most countries of the world. Traditionalism and a lack of market access and market intelligence are additional problems. I asked one farmer why he always planted corn. "Because we always have," he replied

But regardless of the problems facing the villages, village agriculture will continue to feed this hungry nation. Of course there will be imports. Some years there will be more than others. But the little blue trucks, groaning with their loads of rice, corn and potatoes, will continue to make the trek from the villages to the buying stations. Sadly, the village farmer will remain poor, and the rich will get richer.

There aren’t as many little red taxis in Beijing anymore. Fancier green and gold ones have replaced them. But they are far outnumbered by the privately owned cars, many of them Audis, Mercedes-Benzes and other high-dollar items. The growth in this city, and in Eastern China in general, is enormous. Affluence is everywhere. Tastes are expanding as the city dwellers get a desire for dairy products and better quality beef. But the little restaurants are still there. And so are the girls. "Come inside, Sir — our food is the best. It’s made in China."


Don't just eat it, talk it!

Food has never been far from the minds of the Chinese, who not only love to eat, but talk about food incessantly. Here are some quotes.

“Filling the stomach is the most important thing for the people of China.”