China’s economy is based on agriculture, which has a history of over 10,000 years. It not only meets the domestic demands but also plays an important role in improving the standard of living of farmers, especially in backward areas. In the last 40 years, grain output has increased at a massive scale. However, in more recent years it is being noticed that huge tracts of arable lands are being left neglected. What is also an issue of concern are the country’s increasing grain imports in more recent years to meet domestic needs. For example, 1.57 million tonnes of corn was imported in 2010, which is an increase of 83,000 tons from 20091. As stated by the customs office, wheat imports were higher by 36 per cent to 120 million tonnes. Millions of hectares of arable land in central, eastern and southern China have been lying unattended as farmers leave the land amid rapid urbanisation, leading to further increasing risks to grain production. In any case, urbanisation has negative impacts on land usage and availability for agriculture. To add to it, more farmers leave their agricultural plots to seek livelihoods in more lucrative jobs in urbanised areas of the country. In such a scenario, it becomes essential that farmers are supported to improve the benefits they reap from farming.
Urbanisation has been the fast track in the country to attract investment, accumulate wealth and to generate jobs along with boosting consumption, and most importantly to increase the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP). However; it is well known that rapid urbanisation without careful management leads to depletion of natural resources — particularly land and water resources, which is far less than other countries in the world as per capita basis2.
The arable land in the country, which is seven percent of the world’s arable land, has dropped drastically from 130 million hectares in 1996 to about 122 million hectares in 20083, and is expected to drop below 120 million hectares by 2020 by the National Bureau of Statistics.4 A report by the Chinese Land and Mineral Resource Law Center stated in 2010 that industrialisation since the 1950s has led to the wastage of about 13 million hectares, accounting for over 10 per cent of the country’s arable land. According to Zhu Linhua, Director of the farmland protection department at the Ministry of Land Resources, the acceleration of urbanisation and industrialisation has led to a surge in the number of mining related land waste, and most of the wasted land does not get re-cultivated. He had also stated that at least 70 per cent of the damaged land is farm land or agricultural land, near cities or villages. A drop in the amount of arable land means an increase in the number of farmers who are landless, which in turn impacts the economy’s sustainable development.
There were 13 main grain production areas in 2009. These areas — Hebei, Inner Mongolia, Liaoning, Jilin, Heilongjiang, Jiangsu, Anhui, Jiangxi, Shandong, Henan, Hubei, Hunan and Sichuan – produced a total of 397.2 billion kilogrammes, accounting for 77.1 per cent of the national grain production. Eleven self sufficient areas — Shanxi, Guangxi, Chongqing, Guizhou, Yunnan, Tibet, Shaanxi, Gansu, Ningxia, Qinghai and Xinjiang – produced a total of 84.3 billion kilogrammes, accounting for 16.4 per cent of the national grain production. The seven main sales areas — Beijing, Tianjin, Shanghai, Zhejiang, Fujian and Guangdong and Hainan – produced 33.6 billion kilogrammes, which is 6.5 per cent of the national grain production. In these areas, the total grain demand reached 97.3 billion kilogrammes with the self sufficiency ratio at merely 34.6 per cent, down 4.7 per cent from 20055.
A decrease in the levels of self sufficiency of grain production areas means that as the country moves up the level of urbanisation, and a larger proportion of the population shifts to urban areas and works in non-agricultural sectors, the remaining farmers will need to increase their productivity and switch to commercial agriculture. This in turn raises a number of questions related to water and land conservation, rural development, sustainability of livelihoods and food security. Balanced urbanisation and rural development is an urgent requirement in the country, if it has to fulfill its goals of sustainable development. For this purpose, budgetary allocations and farmers’ support have to be tweaked, along with promoting agricultural modernisation, stricter controls on land usage and the promotion of small and medium sized cities. A balance between urbanisation and agricultural development is urgently required to prevent development in the country from becoming lopsided.
(The author is a Junior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi)
1 Jin, Zhu (2011) “Huge Tracts of Arable Land Neglected”, China Daily, August 8, 2011.
2 Li, Xing (2011) “Urbanization: A Difficult Balancing Act”, China Daily, March 25, 2011.
3 Wang, Qian (2011) “Chinese Ministry to Protect Arable Land”, China Daily, January 8, 2011.
4 Deng, Jingyin (2010)”Industry Damaging Arable Land”, Global Times, November 22, 2010.
5 Chen, Xiwen (2010) “The Urbanization Effect on Rural Areas”, Caijing Magazine,January 26, 2010.