Food Security Seeks Salvation in Eco-Farming
By staff reporter LU RUCAI
The following is an interview on food security with Jiang Gaoming, a research fellow with the Institute of Botany under the Chinese Academy of Sciences. Prof. Jiang specializes in grain production and food safety, and has established an experimental eco-farm in his home village, Jiangjiazhuang in Shandong's Pingyi County.
Increased Grain Production Rests on Four Factors
CT: How is it China can feed 1.3 billion population with only 120 million hectares of arable land?
Jiang: It's true that using only 7 percent of the world's arable land and 5 percent of global fresh water resources, China has managed to feed 22 percent of the world's population. Other feats are worth mentioning: the decade from 1982 to 1991 saw China grow into the world's largest grain producer; its output increased by 8 percent annually. From 2004 to 2008, its grain yield continued to rise somewhat, and an increase is also expected for this year.
I think four reasons account for this success. The first is an effective policy. The household farmland contract responsibility system we have implemented since 1978 has boosted grain yields by leaps and bounds. This policy has defined a farmer's obligation to his land and greatly motivated personal initiative. By 1984, China's grain output was exceeding 400 billion kilograms, or 100 billion kilograms more than in 1978. At the 1984 conference of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the Chinese government declared that the country had "basically solved its food problem."
Secondly, the strength of science and technology belongs in the success equation. Seeds, water conservancy and other basic farmland construction have played an indispensable role in output increase. And, of course, chemical fertilizers are also a major player; but we recognize now that most of them can be replaced by organic fertilizers. Feces of many animal farms around the country are left untreated and unused, and are polluting our environment. The government should do something to change this situation.
Human factors also count. I can say almost for sure that Chinese farmers are the most hardworking in the world, and the intensive cultivation methods of China and India were, and still are, the most advanced. Though the right policies can motivate them, it all depends on the farmers' hard work to make good policies operational, realize yield breakthroughs, and guarantee food supplies for billions of people.
Finally, there is climate change. A higher content of carbon dioxide in the air and a warmer climate have, in a way, contributed to higher yields. But these changes also threaten grain production. For example, a warmer climate encourages pests and increases the difficulty of control. Therefore, the role of climate change in grain yield rise is controversial.
Among all these factors, farmland and the people working it are the most pivotal. So the quantity of arable land must be held constant and farmers must keep up the hard work to guarantee food security.
Two Pressures on Food Security
CT: Compared to decades ago, are there any changes in farmers' enthusiasm for growing grain crops?
Jiang: Changes are evident. Today's rural inhabitants don't like to take on farming, because of the great urban-rural income disparity associated with that choice of occupation. If they leave their villages to work in cities, their monthly income equals at least half a year spent farming. In a big grain-producing province such as Shandong, some farmers planted poplar trees in their fields before they went to urban centers, so that when they return a few years later they are able to fell the trees and sell them as timber. The government cannot tie them to their fields and force them to farm; the market has more say in these matters. I've made a rough calculation. The income disparity between urban wageearners and farmers has enlarged to 44 times its original difference since the late 1970s, while grain prices have increased by less than five fold. This is to say that back then farmers could support their families by farming and now they can't. This explains the phenomenon that only the elderly, children and the handicapped are left at home tending family plots while able-bodied members all go to cities. This situation will affect both grain output and quality.
CT: What do you think will encourage farmers to stick to farming?
Jiang: Farming must be made into a profession that attracts villagers and trains farmers in agricultural expertise. Policy support is a must to bring about this revolution in attitude and values. Farmers should be allowed a profit margin that is comparable to, or even higher than, that of a migrant's city wages.
CT: Aside from a somewhat crippled farming initiative, is there any other pressure on China's food security?
Jiang: Yes, grain imports from the United States and other countries. American soybean, for example, currently sells at RMB 1.6-1.8 per kg on the Chinese market, while our own produce goes for RMB 3.0. What if we relied totally on the cheaper American supply? The result would be our dependence on American sources, and with our own production wiped out, you can bet the import will be cheap no longer. The final indignity is that China will have no grounds to bargain on import prices.
Though relevant government departments have realized the importance of food security, many people still place their hopes of securing grain on the international market to meet domestic demand. Then the problem won't be the adequacy of supply, but the grain monopoly held by large transnational companies. Like petroleum, food is also a limited resource. Once China raises its level of dependency on foreign supply, it will be at the mercy of others.
Follow the Money and Change the Rewards
CT: Do you think the current farming method can guarantee our future food security?
Jiang: Over the last three decades, many complications have accompanied rapid agricultural development that impinge on food quality and safety, even management of the shortened growth cycle of domestic animals. Rural environment pollution, increased greenhouse gas emissions, and grassland deterioration are also exacerbated.
A hard look at recent decades reveals the unit yield increase is, in fact, not impressive. In my home village, for example, the wheat yield per mu (1/15 hectare) reached 500 kilos in 1978, but today, it languishes around 400 kilos. One reason for the drop is the blunted initiative I've already mentioned, and the other is that the contribution of chemical fertilizers and pesticides to grain output is actually decreasing; in some cases they actually reduce yields. China overproduces chemical fertilizers. Every year 6-7 percent of chemical fertilizers applied to the farmland is to no avail. This is not only a waste of money, but also causes serious pollution.
In a way, new technology has made human beings brutal to the animal and plant world. With the increased use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides and plastic films, farmers have grown lazy, and the soil becomes more impoverished. Straw and stalks are burned, severing the nutrition cycle by which soil renews itself.
CT: Can we say the government's agricultural subsidy policy works then?
Jiang: Let me put it this way. The United States has six million farmers who sustain the country's agriculture by machines and big government subsidies. China does not have such a large and universal subsidy scheme. The actual budget is small, averaging dozens of yuan per mu. Even if the government increased the unit subsidy to RMB 1,000 per mu, farmers may still not be tempted. If they can get RMB 1,000 a month by working in cities, why would an annual RMB 1,000 turn things around, make all that hardship worth it? This situation is a big challenge to the development of China's agriculture.
Look at who and what present subsidies reward. They go mostly to manufacturers of commodities used in agriculture – chemical fertilizer, pesticide and plastic film – and seed dealers. In my opinion, the focus of subsidies should be reversed and directed to grain prices. Only in this way can grain growers benefit directly from this policy.
CT: How does the farmland transfer policy influence grain production?
Jiang: Personally, I'm not optimistic about this policy. The contract responsibility policy binds farmers to their land but the farmland transfer policy counteracts that and dissociates them from the land. If we follow the U.S. example and entrust agriculture to a small number of big farmers, or in a figure of speech, if 1.2 billion people beg 0.1 billion agribusinessmen for food, this small and powerful group of food growers may not care if people starve as long as their own interests are served.
Transition to Eco-Farming
CT: In your opinion, what is the solution that will ensure grain supply?
Jiang: There are two ways to raise grain output. One, to increase the unit yield. Academician Yuan Longping has dedicated his life to raising the unit yield of rice and showed us how the same size paddy can sustain more lives. Two is to implement the "greater grain" program. My teacher Hou Xueyu has watched agricultural development closely since the 1950s and has proposed the "greater grain" concept to address the weakness he sees. In a nutshell, anything edible counts as grain, such as stalks and other agricultural wastes that can be converted into meat and milk.
I don't think mono-farming has a future, but eco-farming does. By combining animal, plant and microorganism resources we can achieve eco-farming. According to our preliminary experiments, China produces 700 million tons of stalks a year. If they are used to feed cattle, we can raise 100 million tons of cattle. If the meat yield rate is 54 percent, we can obtain 54 million tons of beef, or an equivalent of 270 million tons of grain (one kilo of beef equals five kilos of grain in nutrition and calorie). Deducting 100 million tons of grain used to fatten cattle, we end up with a pure grain gain of 170 million tons.
This calculation has not even accounted for the unused potential of the 400 million hectares of pastureland set free of pasturing by the size of such a herd. We've conducted intense experiments and found that one mu of pasture can sustain at least one chicken – feeding entirely on grass seeds, leaves and insects – without getting damaged. If this potential is layered in, we get an extra 3.15 billion kilos of organic chicken meat, or the equivalent of 15.8 million tons of grain.
Those two contingencies equate to 185.8 million tons of grain, which means a 37 percent increase over the current national grain output. No other regular and available agricultural technology can achieve the same results. If the "greater grain" idea can be implemented, China will be able not only to feed its huge population, but also feed it well.
To guarantee food security, therefore, we must come back to eco-farming, a cyclical process that integrates animals and plants into agricultural production, that uses physical and biological disciplines for pest control, and that replaces chemical fertilizers with animal feces.
CT: How to develop eco-farming in China?
Jiang: Currently, farmers need urban consumers' help to develop organic farming, that is, the organic products must have buyers. Only through effective joining of consumption and production can eco-farming increase productivity. In addition, part of the rural labor force that has flowed into cities should be freed from those labor-intensive sectors and encouraged to return to farming.
Though organic farming is the only solution to food security in the long run, it cannot be realized all at once. It is a gradual process, starting with some growers and some consumers who demonstrate its benefits before it can be promoted nationwide. Now the governments of Beijing's Yanqing County, Shandong's Zibo City and Inner Mongolia's Jungar Banner have seen the social and economic benefits of organic farming and have stepped up their efforts to showcase their eco-farming projects. This is encouraging news.
CT: What inspiration can be drawn from your Shandong experimental eco-farm?
Jiang: It has achieved satisfactory results since its startup in 2007 – a mere three years. We harvest stalks to feed cattle, use cattle feces as fertilizer, control pests using trapping lamps, and use the weeds removed from fields to feed fish and chicken. We have gradually cut the use of chemical fertilizers and substituted organic controls, so the soil continues to recover. After deducting the wages of five villagers at RMB 50,000 per year, our 40 mu of land brings in twice as much money as that of other villagers managing the same size of field.
Increasing farmers' enthusiasm relies on the market. The way out lies in increasing demand for the many real benefits of eco-farming.
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