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Last Updated: Friday, 19 November, 2004, 14:15 GMT
China's boom take toll on staple food
By Poppy Sebag-Montefiore
BBC, China

China's rapid economic development is eating its way into the country's rice production.

Over the last five years, rice farmers in their millions near to big cities, and along China's prospering coastline, have switched from rice cultivation to cash crops yielding larger profits.

Farmer Li
Farmer Li wants compensation for loss of earnings

Millions of others have given up farming altogether, leaving their fields and venturing to the cities.

And the cities themselves - perhaps modern China's fastest growing crop - are sprawling out into the countryside, routing their roads where rice paddies once lay.

And yet rice consumption is on the rise, as family incomes increase, so the country is forced to rely on imports, which are too expensive for China's poor.

"This year China has a rice deficit of around 4m tonnes," said Wu Wen from the Ministry of Agriculture's Research Centre for Rural Economy.

Mr Li, a farmer in Tongzhou county, east of Beijing, said that some of his rice paddies were now part of the motorway connecting the county to the capital, and the forests of trees which line the motorway.

Those guys intentionally... keep the farmers' rights insecure so that when they need the land they can take it without much opposition
Li Ping, Rural Development Institute

He does not grow rice anymore. In 1992 the authorities in his area introduced a ban on paddy farming because they could no longer guarantee enough water. Ground water was dangerously low and the local river was heavily polluted.

He feels that he has not been properly compensated for the loss of his potential income. He earns a total of $60 a month.

"That is my land, but what can I earn from those trees?," he asked angrily.

Professor Cai Dianxiong at the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences believes that China's water shortage poses the biggest threat for food security in the country.

Ninety percent of drinking water in China is used for farming and most of the farming water is used to irrigate rice paddies.

"The only way to solve that problem is to increase the technology to improve water use efficiency, to encourage farmers to use water saving technology and resistance crop varieties: crop yields can be increased while the water used could remain the same amount or even less," he said.

This year the Chinese government has offered 10bn Yuan ($1.2bn) in subsidies for farmers who grow rice and other grains. The subsidies provide a great incentive, and possibly even the financial means, for farmers to implement water saving technology.

Local tensions

But Li Ping, the Beijing representative at a US-based non-profit organisation, the Rural Development Institute, said it was difficult for farmers to increase their land quality.

"China is moving towards a more and more secure land rights system, but still the farmers' land rights are not secure enough for farmers to invest their own capital and labour to improve the land quality.

Vegetable fields in northern China
10 years ago these vegetable fields were all rice paddies

"The problem is the middle layer managers, at the provisional or county level. Those guys intentionally, as I understand it, keep the farmers' rights insecure so that when they need the land they can take it without much opposition," he said.

Local officials can sell farmers' land to developers and make profits while giving the farmers minimal, if any, compensation.

Li Ping believes that only by securing the farmers' confidence in their land rights will farmers be encouraged to make the long term investments needed to improve the quality of their farms, reduce China's rice deficit, and create more of their own wealth.

Farmer Li would like to join the new rice brigade, but he can't. There is still a restriction in his area against growing rice.

I asked him if that was because of the water shortage.

"Partly," he said, but he is suspicious of the local officials' motives.

"We need honesty," he said. "We are supposed to be a huge agricultural country, farming is supposed to be important. But the local government are always doing crazy things, like turning our land into forests to line the motorway."

China's economic boom is taking its toll on the country's favourite staple food; subsidies and new rice technology may not be enough to secure sustainable rice production.

The challenge for the government will be whether they can cultivate the farmers' trust in China's political system.


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