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In China, sustainability means going modern

Planners back off full-tilt grain production; call for more imports

Part of the challenge with understanding Chinese agriculture and the country’s focus on feeding its population is getting a mental grasp on the numbers. On China’s scale, the population of the United States comes after the decimal. At 1.36 billion people, China’s population is ours plus a billion. Actually, to get the math to work, China’s population is ours, plus a billion—plus adding again the population of our top 10 cities and the whole of Florida. All of that on a land mass roughly equivalent to the United States without Alaska, minus Texas. And minus Texas, again.

In simple terms, China represents a fifth of the world’s population on just a twelfth of the world’s arable land. You can see why policy made in Beijing sends ripples to every shore.

Changes in Chinese modern agricultural policy are tethered to historic “reform.”

Back in the 1950s during Mao’s Great Leap Forward, societal upheaval didn’t spare agriculture. Private lands were nationalized. That led to a surplus of former landlords. They were killed—the most popular estimates being something like 800,000 to a million of them. The famine that followed culminated in agricultural and food policy that is just now being reconsidered—that by diktat, the country would provide its own food.

Under that philosophy, Chinese food policy for the past several decades has been to chase big crops, aiming as much as possible to be self-reliant in grains. However, in a recent announcement, Han Jun, deputy director of the Office of Central Rural Work Leading Group, which sets Chinese rural policy, said that would no longer be the case.

“In our current grains policy, one of the most important ideas is to speed up the transition in the way we boost grain output. In the past we were exhausting our resources and environment in pursuit of yield, and now we have to focus equally on quantity, quality and efficiency and particularly the quality of grain output growth, environmental protection and sustainable development.”

Meanwhile, agricultural planners want to increase production of livestock in China.

According to new plans, China’s grain production would be capped at 610 million metric tons, rather than the previous level of 650 million metric tons. Depending on the grains involved, that’s about a 1.5-billion- bushel reduction in production. Officials acknowledge that raising more protein-rich foods will add to required grain use, and these production goals would require increased grain imports.

Among those changes, we should note that livestock production is becoming more specialized, and increasingly quasi-privately owned. Hogs as garbage disposals are on the way out. Commercial feed is on the way in.

For U.S. growers, this is market share to gain.

A recent report from USDA’s Economic Research Service said that the long-promised demand from China is finally here.

“There are signs that China’s demand for feed grains has reached a turning point as a tightening labor supply and rising feed costs force significant structural change in China’s livestock sector. Over the last 5 years, economic growth has absorbed surplus rural labor and rural wages began rising 15 to 20 percent annually. Labor scarcity, animal disease pressures and rising living standards are prompting rural households to abandon ‘backyard’ livestock production.”

We don’t share the commandand- control debacle of mid-20th Century China, but the Chinese countryside is undergoing something familiar to our oldest farmer generation. Chinese agriculture is mechanizing. As a result, the country’s number of farmers will plummet. China’s cities will engorge further. And there will be, by necessity, the kind of efficiency brought by specialization and vertical integration. Chinese officials have seen the result of backyard agriculture and of command and control. It’s not up to the task.

Here’s how Michael Meyer, author In Manchuria: A Village Called Wasteland and the Transformation of Rural China explained it in a recent Los Angeles Times op-ed: “China’s solution is to industrialize farming, as the United States did in the last century. (In 1935, America had 6.8 million mostly small farms; today it has 2.2 million, and just 9 percent of them produce 66 percent of America’s crops.) In February, when the Communist Party released its policy blueprint, the ‘No. 1 Central Document,’ for the 12th year in a row, it focused on rural reforms. The government is promoting the consolidation of family-farmed plots into large-scale, managed enterprises. In a word: agribusinesses.”

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