Outgrowing the Earth: The Food Security Challenge in an Age of Falling Water Tables and Rising Temperatures


Lester R. Brown

Chapter 8. Reversing China’s Harvest Decline: A New Food Strategy

The freefall in China’s grain production from 1998 to 2003 indicates what can happen if Beijing continues with business-as-usual on the farm front. If China is to avoid a long-term decline in its grain harvest, it will need radical new policies and a basic reordering of priorities in the national budget. Future food security depends on policy shifts in land ownership, water pricing, desert reclamation, and transportation. 47

Following the economic reforms of 1978, the huge farm production teams were dissolved and the “Family Responsibility System” was introduced. Individual farm families were leased a plot of land for a 15-year term. When these began expiring in the 1990s, they were replaced with 30-year leases. For farmers, having their own plot of land to farm unleashed an enormous burst of energy in the countryside, one that boosted grain production from 199 million tons in 1977 to 306 million tons in 1984. 48

Unfortunately, even with these long-term leases farmers are still insecure because the land can be taken from them at any time by local officials. Arthur Kroeber writes in the Financial Times that China’s “village leaders can arbitrarily ‘readjust’ land rights at a moment’s notice, changing boundaries or even forcing farmers to move from an old plot to a new one.” They can also confiscate a farmer’s land and sell it for industrial development projects, compensating farmers at far below market value. There is no recourse because the farmers do not have title to the land. They are tenants, not owners. The authority of village leaders to appropriate land at will is thus a threat hanging over the heads of villagers, a source of political control. 49

If tenants become owners, however, production might surge again. Giving farmers title to their land could harness latent energies in the countryside, encouraging them to invest in land improvements that yield long-term productivity gains, such as terracing and local water storage facilities. Taking this next step would help rejuvenate China’s sagging agriculture, but it would also mean that local party officials would lose control of the land, and with it a large measure of political power.

Another key to reversing the decline in China’s grain production is to accelerate its program to raise water productivity, particularly in the northern half of the country, where water shortages are strangling agriculture. This means pricing water at a level that reflects its value in a water-scarce situation. Higher prices combined with economic incentives to shift to more water-efficient technologies, whether in irrigation, in industry, or at the household level, can expand output while reducing water use to where water tables can be stabilized.

China also needs a reliable system of grain price supports that will encourage farmers to invest more in agriculture. They need not be particularly high, but they do need to be reliable. In 1994, when China raised support prices by 40 percent, it generated a strong production response, but then prices were permitted to gradually decline to the world market level over the next several years. With prices so low that farmers were no longer earning a profit, many of them simply lost interest and produced only enough grain for their own needs. Without reliable price supports that enable farmers to grow grain profitably, China’s food security is at risk. The decision in early 2004 to raise the rice support price by 21 percent was a step in the right direction. 50

One of the innovative responses to China’s growing demand for animal protein is the development of the world’s most advanced aquacultural sector. At the heart of this effort is the highly efficient carp polyculture pioneered by the Chinese and described in Chapter 3, which enabled Chinese fish farmers to produce more than 15 million tons of freshwater fish in 2002. For China, this emphasis on the highly efficient production of animal protein is another positive step—and an example for other countries to follow. 51

China, facing the growing competition between cars and crops for land, may soon be forced to reexamine its transportation policy. There is an inherent conflict between continuing to build an auto-centered transportation system and ensuring future food security. With nearly 1.2 billion of its 1.3 billion people living in less than half of the country on the eastern and southern coast, the competition between cars and farmers for land will be intense. If China moves toward having a car in every garage, American-style, it will face not only gridlock but soaring food shortfalls as well. If Beijing continues to expand the production and ownership of automobiles, cropland will almost certainly continue to shrink. The alternative is to develop a passenger transport system centered on high-tech rail and buses, augmented by bicycles. Such a system would provide not only more mobility in the end, but also greater food security. 52

In some ways the most intractable environmental problem China faces is the growth of deserts throughout the western and northern parts of the country largely as a result of overgrazing. Unless the central government makes a concerted effort to reduce the population of sheep and goats to the carrying capacity of the grazing lands, deserts will continue their eastward march toward Beijing and the blinding dust storms that mark the late winter and early spring will become even more frequent.

Planting marginal cropland in trees helps correct the mistakes of overplowing, but it does not deal with the overgrazing issue. Arresting desertification may depend more on grass than trees—on both enabling existing grasses to recover and planting grass in denuded areas.

Beijing is trying to arrest the spread of deserts by asking pastoralists to reduce their flocks of sheep and goats by 40 percent, but in communities where wealth is measured in livestock numbers and where most families are living under the poverty line, such cuts are not easy. Some local governments are requiring stall-feeding of livestock with forage gathered by hand, hoping that confinement of herds will permit grasslands to recover. 53

China is taking some of the right steps to halt the advancing desert, but it has a long way to go to reduce livestock numbers to a sustainable level. At this point, there is not yet a plan in place that will halt the advancing deserts. Qu Geping, the farsighted Chairman of the Environment and Resources Committee of the National People’s Congress, estimates that the remediation of land in the areas where it is technically feasible would cost $28.3 billion. Halting the advancing deserts will thus require a massive commitment of financial and human resources, one that may force a choice between the large investments proposed for south-north water diversion projects and those required to halt the advancing deserts that are occupying more of China each year. 54

China is faced with an extraordinary challenge. Adopting the needed policies in agriculture, water, land ownership, desert reclamation, and transportation to ensure future food security will be far more demanding than for countries that developed earlier, when land and water were more plentiful. Stated otherwise, if China is to restore and sustain a rise in grain production, it will have to adopt measures in land use planning, transportation, and water use that are responsive to its unique circumstances—measures that no government has ever adopted. The entire world has a stake in China’s success.


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