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Ensuring food security in China

Northern China is suffering its worst drought in half a century. Are drought-tolerant crops the solution? Jiang Gaoming reports.

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Water scarcity affects 184,000 square kilometres (276 million mu)of farmland in northern China, as the worst drought for half a century grips the region. It has put food security back on the agenda, and revealed a lack of investment in agricultural land. The drought has also triggered discussion about new crops that can cope with these conditions. Monsanto, the multinational agricultural biotechnology firm, recently announced plans to market a drought-tolerant strain of maize earlier than expected, after four years of development. Irrigation will provide inadequate water for China’s fields, say some experts. The cultivation of drought-tolerant crops seems important.

But are genetically-modified crops the best way to improve harvests? Aside from food safety issues, they may not be a good idea. The factors that affect Chinese food security are the area farmed, and the yield per unit of area. Yield is more affected by the quality of the land than the nature of the crop. Without a major increase in yield, decreases in the amount of land that is farmed or a shortening in the growing season result in decreased harvests. GM technology only has a role to play where fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides are used heavily. All of these technologies replace labour: people do less work, the soil becomes less fertile and pollution worsens. In the long term, the key factor in food production – soil fertility – is not improved but diminished. As the GM industry overwhelms agriculture, farmers will have less freedom over their work and will become less inclined to plant staple food crops.

According to Li Zhensheng, an award-winning expert on the genetics of wheat, yields in the 1950s were very low: around 100 kilograms per mu. At that time, harvests were limited by the area of land planted. Investment in agriculture, including irrigation, the use of chemical fertilisers and mechanisation, increased from 1962 to 1995. This and the household-responsibility system – which motivated farmers to increase harvests – saw yields rocket to 283 kilograms per mu (667 square metres). Yield became the limiting factor. Since then, yield has remained around 300 kilograms per mu: 314.4 kilograms in 2006, 286 kilograms in 2008. As in the 1950s, the area of land farmed now determines the size of the harvest.

In the latter half of the last century, there was progress in increasing soil fertility, which we can still learn from today. Mao Zedong said that increasing harvests required irrigation, soil improvement, extra fertiliser, improvement of crop strains, closer planting, the prevention of pests, the use of machinery and field management. All of these measures can provide crops with the conditions for growth, and all need investment in agricultural infrastructure. But today we concentrate on a few technological factors: different GM strains, fertilisers, and so on. Irrigation, pest control and field management infrastructure receive no investment and fall into decay. Labour is replaced by machinery; people become lazy. Vendors of machinery, fertilisers, pesticides and agricultural membrane take their cut; nobody worries about pollution or biodiversity loss. Is it any surprise the soil suffers?

There have been huge advances in agricultural technology in recent decades – in fertilisers, pesticides, membranes, breeding and genetic engineering. The use of fertiliser increases by two million tonnes every year. But despite this, China’s harvests from 1999 to 2007 failed to reach the peak of 1998. The limiting factor is not technology; further investment in that direction only serves to increase costs. The problem is a human one.

An elderly farmer from eastern China told me that he often heard people say: “There is no money to be made growing crops. Fertilisers and the rest are so expensive: the more you plant, the more you lose. Just plant enough to eat.” In economically developed regions, farmland goes to waste or is covered with buildings. Fertile soil is being lost.

“Just plant enough to eat,” encapsulates the threat to China’s food security. After the household-responsibility system was implemented, farmers took care of their own food security first. And when it became possible to earn an income from growing crops, productivity rose. Today, costs are high and grain prices are low, so farmers leave the land and head for the cities. From the rich eastern coast to the poor provinces of the west, it is mainly the old, sick or disabled that remain in the villages. Even the women have left to find work. With little available labour, only the minimum is ever planted.

This is the root of China’s food security problem, and it is not an issue that GM crops can solve. GM crops will only benefit the powerful and force more people off the land. GM crops, combined with the use of chemicals, will continue to harm soil fertility, decreasing food security.

Chinese food security is limited by the fact that millions of rural residents simply will not plant food crops, due to falling fertility and yields. For the sake of our agriculture and that of future generations, we must use and maintain the land as we did in the past. We need to increase investment in agriculture; restore the irrigation infrastructure that dates back to the 1960s; encourage intensive cultivation; and ensure that working the land is profitable. We should not allow fields to lie empty and fertility to drop. 

Jiang Gaoming is a professor and Ph.D. tutor at the Chinese Academy of Sciences' Institute of Botany. He is also vice secretary-general of China Society of Biological Conservation and board member of China Environmental Culture Promotion Association.

 Homepage photo by .SantiMB.

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匿名 | Anonymous



Technology also needs to comply with certain conditions

The introduction of advanced technology in China is undoubtedly a good act. However, as the author of this article has pointed out, we have to consider our own situation in the course of applying these technologies if we want them to be effective. Obviously, the idea of blindly copying the policies of developed, business-oriented countries is not an effective means to solving China's food security problems, even if high-tech equipment is used.
The comment was translated by mz.yao

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匿名 | Anonymous



Further risks of small scale GM agriculture

An excellent, much needed article.

There is also a risk that famers lose rights to all their land (i.e. their source of survival) if they are unable to pay off their debt if they borrow in order to buy GM inputs. They should not be allowed to use those rights as collateral.

Also, fertiliser production is very energy intensive (i.e. large CO2 emissions from coal fired power stations) and fertiliser tends to pollute watercourses during rainy weather.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



transform the concept

In food production, the key is to change our concept of land. Land isn't a lifeless machine; land has a vitality. If land users neglect this characteristic, the land will become more and more barren.(Translated by David Vance Wagner)

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous


转基因食品不能产出可发芽的种子。在该农场附近的作物也存在相应的发芽失败。自然的模式已经成长并运转了几百万年,而现代人用了几百万天就开始放弃了这一模式,并转向人工土壤的投资。 回归自然这一课是很容易的,只要有领导者和教育者。模式本身是现成的。Robert Vincin (北京)

Dangers in artificial soil inputs for China

GM crops do not produce germinating seeds. There is a correlation of failure in germination in neighboring farms crops. Natural process grew & survived for millions of years, but modern man lost them in a million days with artificial farm soil inputs. Restoring back to Natures lesson is easy, all that is needed is leaders and teachers -- the models are all there. Robert Vincin Beijing (Moderated by Poppy Toland)

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匿名 | Anonymous



The three 'rural' problems: the countryside, the farmers and agriculture - these three are linked in a cycle; people regard food as most important but the farmers in many places do not do much labour, the men go away to work so they can support the family and in today's market you can buy anything. It's only down to a complacent attitude, with an affluent, surplus, idle workforce on one hand and infertile land on the other. Nowadays not many farmers weed their land, they all use herbicides; few use organic fertiliser, they all use chemical fertiliser; the farmers are trying to save themselves the trouble. Few people are able to see how to get something out of the land, going back a step, if farmers' intensive cultivation did not produce as much food as 'extensive' methods, such as using chemical fertiliser and herbicides, we would just be eating a bit healthier and a bit safer, but since when do farmers have a concept of green products? Laziness - today's farmers really have become lazy. Moreover, they have become lazy because there is no enthusiasm, food prices are low, arable land earns no money, if you do it badly you still lose money. We should call for regional economic development and advocate a self-sufficient economic model and at the same time, the state should heavily subsidise agriculture to attract and mobilise the workforce. Intensive industry has led to agriculture becoming more extensive and this really is laughable. (YZHK) (Translated by Jodie Gardiner)

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匿名 | Anonymous

Chen Jiliang



Should agricultural subsidies be provided or should grain price be handed over to the market to decide?
Translated by Chen Liying (Anna)