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Management of land and water resources must be strengthened to ensure healthy growth of food production to meet demand
How to better feed its huge population remains a constant concern for China. The country's food security has improved significantly and the number of undernourished people has declined considerably over the past three decades. But increasing consumption and growing resource constraints, as a result of China's rapid economic growth, have made better feeding China a daunting task.
The fact that it has comparatively little arable land and freshwater sources has made self-sufficiency in food, especially in the two staples of rice and wheat, the top priority for China. Its achievements in this regard, though, have been remarkable since the late 1970s when agricultural and rural reforms were introduced.
"Since 1978, its volume of agricultural production has grown almost five-fold and the country has made significant progress toward food security with the number of undernourished falling by almost 100 million since 1990," Jose Graziano da Silva, director-general of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, said at the opening ceremony of the 2013 World Agricultural Outlook Conference in Beijing on June 6.
But it will be a long-term challenge for China to maintain this momentum. Last year, the World Trade Organization said China had replaced the United States as the world's largest importer of agricultural products. Although China is self-sufficient in basic food grains, it has become so by importing other agricultural products which compete for land and water. For example, China's dependence on foreign soybean is close to 80 percent now, and the import of oilseeds and dairy products is likely to remain high in the coming years.
According to the 2013-22 World Agricultural Outlook, published by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and the FAO in June, the consumption of the main agricultural products over the next decade in China is expected to outpace the growth in agricultural production by about 0.3 percent a year, driven by growing population, higher incomes, urbanization and changing diets.
Better feeding a population of 1.3 billion people, in particular reducing the number of undernourished people, estimated to be about 158 million, remains the government's top priority and the basic goal of its agricultural policy. The country has to make greater efforts to manage land and water resources, mitigate the effects of climate change on agriculture and safeguard biodiversity.
Smallholder farming is a basic feature of China's agriculture. In the 1980s, the household contract responsibility system replaced the commune system, enabling individual farmers to lease land from the collectives and become largely autonomous in their decision making. This boosted agricultural output, sometimes at the cost of the environment and sustainability.
Farmers, however, cannot accord priority to the environment and sustainability until their incomes - far less than that in urban areas - reach a respectable level. And the onus of increasing their incomes lies with the government. Also, local authorities should provide farmers with more information to help them adopt climate-smart agricultural practices and become more innovative.
"Only when farmers attach importance to sustainable agricultural development and its values become incorporated into conscious behavioral norms will it be possible to make agricultural development sustainable in China," said Ni Hongxing, director-general of the Agricultural Trade Promotion Center, affiliated to the Ministry of Agriculture, in a recent report.
The central government, on its part, should take measures to ensure adequate supply of labor for agriculture, because attracted by the lure of higher wages in urban areas, rural workers, particularly the young and educated, have been making a beeline for cities leaving an aging labor force in rural areas. If this trend continues, it will deprive the agricultural sector of the modern, skilled workforce it needs for large-scale farming with modern machinery and equipment, which would increase agricultural output. Without modern large-scale farming, productivity will be severely constrained.
The central government has instituted a policy to prevent further loss of agricultural land. But the economic downturn will put further pressure on local authorities to use land for development to increase their revenues. So the central government has to ensure that they don't cross the red line.
Climate change, too, is putting pressure on precious land and water resources. While the area of cultivated land in China has decreased rapidly in recent years, the quality of much of the remaining arable land has been deteriorating, with 70 percent classified as low-yield farmland, according the OECD. Affected by global warming, reduced rainfall, depletion of surface water and groundwater levels, China's northern region, its main grain belt, faces serious soil erosion. On top of this, soil in many areas has been contaminated with sewage, garbage, industrial effluents and other pollutants.
The impact of climate change is also evident in declining and increasingly variable water sources. With relatively low levels of precipitation and high annual variations in rainfall, China faces serious water shortage. With the effects of climate change becoming more pronounced, the water available for agriculture could reduce further threatening the stability of food production.
Providing enough food for the Chinese people has implications for the international market, which is a question of great importance not just to China, but also to the rest of the world.
"In an integrated world economy, rising food prices will become the world's rising food prices. China's land scarcity will become everyone's land scarcity. And water scarcity in China will affect the entire world," says Lester Brown, president of the Earth Policy Institute, in his book Who Will Feed China?
But with China's population projected to grow by about 9 percent, until it peaks at 1.46 billion around 2030, the question is: Can China increase its agricultural output to meet the demand and achieve self-sufficiency?
China needs to design a policy to suit its domestic conditions and improve its support for sustainable agriculture. The government's focus is on resolving asymmetry and imbalance between the huge number of smallholders and the large Chinese market. But it also has to strengthen the management of land and water resources and address the effects of climate change on agricultural production.
The author is a journalist with China Daily. E-mail: email@example.com
(China Daily 06/22/2013 page5)