How China plans to feed her 1.4b growing appetites

As more Chinese crave Western-style diets, the booming nation rushes to industrialize an agricultural economy long built around small farms.

Watching Jiang Wannian and Ping Cuixiang harvest a sixth of an acre of daikon seed in the north-central province of Gansu feels a little like traveling back in time.

In a dry valley ringed by dusky mountains, on a brick-paved lot, Jiang drives a rusted tractor over a hip-deep mound of dried plants. As they crush down, Ping, Jiang’s wife, plunges a homemade pitchfork into the straw and arranges it for another pass. Eventually Jiang and Ping work side by side, wiry figures with tawny skin.

It’s hot, but they are swaddled in clothes to protect themselves from the dust and the sun. They have handsome faces, taut and lined from years of laboring outdoors, and they turn them skyward as they throw fine chaff up and watch ruddy seed rain down. This rhythm continues for hours. In a singsong voice Ping encourages the wind, murmuring, “Blow, blow!” Machines can do this work in minutes, but they are too expensive for Jiang and Ping. Instead they still thresh the daikon by hand, just as farmers did centuries ago.

Jiang and Ping represent one story of China and its farms. More than 90 percent of all farms in China are less than 2.5 acres, and the average farm size is among the smallest in the world. But this is not the only story. Over the past four decades China has caught up to the agricultural development that took the Western world 150 years to achieve—and reimagined it to boot. Every kind of agriculture is now happening all at once: tiny family farms, gleaming industrial meat factories and dairies, sustainably minded high-tech farms, even organic urban ones.

China is grappling with a daunting conundrum: how to feed nearly one-fifth of the world’s population with less than one-tenth of its farmland, while adapting to changing tastes. Thirty years ago about a quarter of the country’s people lived in cities, but by 2016, 57 percent of the population was urban, living in a China that is wealthier and more technologically advanced, with a diet that increasingly resembles that of the West. The Chinese eat nearly three times as much meat as in 1990. Consumption of milk and dairy quadrupled from 1995 to 2010 among urban residents and nearly sextupled among rural ones. And China now buys far more processed foods, increasing about two-thirds from 2008 to 2016.

Because China’s agricultural resources are so modest, supplying this new diet means heading abroad, leading the government to encourage—and help—Chinese companies to acquire farmland and food companies in places like the United States, Ukraine, Tanzania, and Chile. But China has long prized self-sufficiency in staple grains, as an ideology and a response to political isolation, and this has implications for fields at home too. In 2013 President Xi Jinping, discussing food policy with rural officials, told them, “Our rice bowl should be mainly loaded with Chinese food.” This raises a tricky question: If the Chinese are going to feed themselves and eat more like Americans, what does that mean for the way they farm?

Source: National Geographic

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