China seeks balance between food security, urbanisation

October 5th, 2008 - 9:12 am ICT by IANS  

Beijing, Oct 5 (Xinhua) Feeding 1.3 billion people remains one of China’s top challenges after 30 years of reform and opening up and the government’s worries are all the more aggravated by the continuous loss of farmland and labour to rampant urbanisation.”We used to store big urns of grain at home every year, but now few families do so and instead we buy grain. The young are working away from the farms,” says 57-year Zhou Siyu of Longkou village in Shandong province.

“The buildings and roads take too much high-yield cropland and shrubs or flowers have been planted in beautification schemes,” she rues.

The government’s concerns reflect the worries of ordinary farmers. In July, the government approved a medium to long-term guideline to ensure food security, setting grain production targets at 500 billion kg by 2010, 540 billion kg by 2020 and 95 percent self-sufficiency by 2020.

It also prescribes ways to protect farmland, construct rural infrastructure and raise farmers’ incomes.

China presently has about 1.827 billion mu (121.8 million hectares), or 1.39 mu (0.09 hectares) per capita, about a third of the global average. In 1996, it had 1.951 billion mu (130.07 million hectares), or 1.59 mu (0.11 hectares) per person - a loss of 6.4 percent of the arable land in 11 years mainly to urbanisation.

China’s urban population is also growing fast: from 17.9 percent of the total population in 1978 to 43.9 percent in 2006. The government is aiming for 70 percent by 2050, about average for a “relatively developed country”.

A survey in 145 cities by the Institute of Geographic Sciences and Natural Resources Research under the China Academy of Sciences showed 70 percent of new construction in large and medium-sized cities is on arable land. “The figure is 80.9 percent in some western areas,” says Chen.

China reported 7,438 square km of urban area in 1981 and 32,521 square km in 2005, a 340-percent increase in 25 years.

Meanwhile, the ministry of agriculture says the country will need 1.824 billion mu (121.6 million hectares) of farmland in 2010 and 1.85 billion mu (123.33 million hectares) in 2030 to achieve 95 percent self-sufficiency, meaning the farmland area must increase.

However, some believe urbanisation does not necessarily bring about a reduction in farmland or lead to an impending “grain crisis”. It could be attributed to “irrational urbanisation,” says Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) researcher Li Chenggui. “Scientific urban planning could save farmland or use it more efficiently.”

Minister of Land and Resources Xu Shaoshi says the government must protect farmland, ensuring development takes as little farmland as possible, and use more non-farm land and improve land use efficiency.

Experts believe China’s two categories of land ownership are at the root of the problem. “The system is why farmland disappears so easily,” Li says.

Land ownership is divided into state-owned and collective-owned land. Collective-owned land, almost all rural and suburban land, is owned by the rural collective economic organisation. Farmers do not own farmland, although they have the right to use and manage it.

Turning rural land into state-owned land, then into construction land, means profits.

According to the national Land Administration Law, compensation for farmland appropriation for construction should be, at most, “30 times the average annual output in the previous three years”.

The high profits may encourage local governments to allow contractors to turn rural land into state-owned construction land, Li says.

Some experts argue for only one form of ownership so the government can maintain overall control over planning, says Liu Weixin, deputy director of the Modern Urban and Rural Development Institute of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

CASS researcher Li says grain output can also be increased through cultivation of as hybrid rice, infrastructure construction to boost output of low and medium-yield land (which is about two-thirds of the arable land in China) and introduction of modern farm management.

This year, China could have a fifth consecutive bumper summer harvest, the longest run of bumper harvest since 1949, according to the ministry of agriculture.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation defines food security as access for all people, at all times, to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.

The peasant woman of Longkou village remembers the extreme famine from 1959 to 1961, when “all the tree bark disappeared. People had to consume the barks to survive”.

“Our generation have experienced hunger. We feel uneasy when we see high-yield farmland wasted,” Zhou says. She keeps tending a small plot of cropland.

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