China Aims for Food Security as Pollution Destroys Crop Land

A farmer working her land next to a lead factory near Hengyang, China Photograph by Sim Chi Yin/The New York Times via Redux

China must stick to a policy of “basic grain self-sufficiency.” While keeping imports at an “appropriate” level, it must “not relax domestic food production at any time,” decrees the first policy document of the year, issued on Jan. 19 by the Central Committee of the Communist Party.

Released every January, the zhongyang yihao wenjian, or “No. 1 Central Document” has for the last 11 years focused on China’s agricultural economy, a reflection of the importance the leadership puts upon China’s countryside and its rural population. Previous versions have emphasized everything from scientific and technological innovation and water conservancy to raising farmers’ incomes and agricultural modernization.

Obsessions with food security are certainly not new. “The idea of storing surplus grain in good times to guard against famine dates back at least as far as the Old Testament, when Joseph gave just such advice to the Pharaoh. Its history in China is almost as long,” wrote Jim Harkness, president of the Minneapolis-based Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy in a policy paper back in 2011. (Harkness previously lived and worked for many years in China.)

With China having become a country with more city dwellers than rural residents for the first time ever (as of the end of 2012), and with accelerating urbanization a national priority under the new leadership of President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang, maintaining food security has moved again to the forefront. (Agricultural modernization was also cited again as a top priority this year.)

Of particular concern: With the quantity of China’s farmers dwindling every year, who will farm the land? At the end of 2013, China had 731.11 million urbanites, 19.29 million more than a year earlier. The country’s rural population, by contrast, numbered 629.61 million, down by 12.61 million, China’s national bureau of statistics announced on Jan. 20. And while China’s total grain production reached 601.94 million tons last year—up by 12.36 million tons, or 2.1 percent—agriculture as a whole makes up only about one-tenth of China’s $9.4 trillion economy, with its share of gross domestic product declining proportionally.

Agriculture grew by 4 percent last year, while manufacturing and construction, or secondary industry, grew by 7.8 percent, and services by 8.3 percent. Services, also known as the tertiary sector, made up the bulk of GDP for the first time in 2013, edging out manufacturing and construction.

Another major worry: maintaining adequate amounts of arable land, even as China’s cities expand and factories proliferate. China had 135 million hectares (334 million acres) of arable land at the end of 2012, during its latest survey, still above its self-proclaimed “red line” of 120 million hectares (297 million acres).

Amid runaway economic development, about 3.3 million hectares of farmland—an area the size of Belgium—has become too contaminated to grow crops, China’s authorities revealed late last year.

The government will spend “tens of billions of yuan” each year to recover land damaged by heavy metal contamination (toxic cadmium is a particularly severe problem) and restore over-exploited ground aquifers, said Wang Shiyuan, China’s vice minister of land and resources, at a press conference in Beijing on Dec. 30, reported Bloomberg News.

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