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Field of Dreams
Special> Field of Dreams
UPDATED: June 15, 2007 NO. 24 JUNE 14, 2007
Feeding the Nation

Food security is an important factor in non-traditional security concerns. Does China have food shortage concerns? How should China guarantee its food security? Beijing Review reporter Feng Jianhua discusses these issues with Professor Li Chenggui, head of the Center for Rural Policy under the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, and Yang Shaopin, Director of the Bureau of State Farms and Land Reclamation under the Ministry of Agriculture.

Beijing Review: At a national conference of grain bureau chiefs at the end of January, Nie Zhenbang, Director of State Grain Administration, said that steady growth of China's national grain reserves means the nation's food security is completely guaranteed. Meanwhile, many grain experts think China's total grain demand will rise steadily for the next 15 years, leading to a shortfall in supply. Such a scenario poses serious challenges to China's farming industry. What is your opinion?

Li Chenggui: I am optimistic about China's grain balance. China has painful memories about famine. Under this kind of social psyche, pressure on China's grain supply tends to be exaggerated, which often triggers public concerns as well as those of the government. Fluctuations of grain supply in the international market are normal. Yet if these fluctuations concern China, any delay in government response is likely to cause large-scale social panic. This phenomenon is linked with Chinese national conditions, which is quite understandable.

As a matter of fact, China's grain concerns have been overstressed. About 10 years ago, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization recommended a food security requirement level of more than 400 kg per capita a year. Many people calculate China's total grain demand based on this standard and compare the result with the predicted total production capacity. These experts project a grain crisis for China based on any gap between these two figures. This is a very simple academic assumption.

In fact, this per-capita grain requirement is far from China's situation considering the changed population scale, land resources and consumption models. My basic judgment is that I don't believe famine will ever befall China.

According to statistics, between 1986 and 2005, China's farmland has receded by 17.7 million hectares in total to construction land use. The annual loss of agricultural land is around 0.5 percent. This farmland withdrawal has become an irreversible trend. Many people worry that the benchmark line put forward by the State Council of having 120 million hectares of farmland by 2020 will not be achieved. Farmland, a key factor of agriculture, is the basis for grain supply. Some people believe this decrease in farmland is the biggest threat to food security. What do you think?

Li Chenggui: I believe the drop in farmland is an unavoidable trend with the accelerated industrialization and urbanization of China. Therefore, it is impossible to defend the benchmark line of 120 million hectares forever. We should admit that the drop of farmland is a major minus for steady grain supply in China. While this factor should be given attention, we should not be over pessimistic due to the following factors.

Firstly, besides the policy of strictly forbidding the loss of farmland, China has huge potential to tapping farmland resources. For example, I recently did field studies in the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region and was told there are about 1.3 million hectares of reclaimable land in this region.

Secondly, there is enormous space for output increase based on technological progress. In my recent field research in China's northeast, I found that 80 percent of farmers in that region plant soybeans. But the quality of their products is poor with small seeds of low oil production. If new technologies could be introduced, the output would experience a big hike. I personally believe that with proper state guidance and enough market demand, China's grain production will reach another peak.

What is your biggest worry about China's food security?

Li Chenggui: My biggest worry is whether agricultural technology can catch up with the speed of social and economic development. Agriculture is a resource-intensive industry. Thus when there are bottlenecks for resource supply, agricultural development largely hinges on the progress of technology. Although China's grain production per unit is higher than the world average level, it lags behind that of developed countries.

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