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Last Updated: Saturday, 5 January 2008, 12:35 GMT
China's farms struggle to meet growing demand
By Quentin Sommerville
BBC News, Henan

I stood in Zhang Meidi's cabbage patch, kicking the dirt with my boots.

Zhang Meidi
Urbanisation and the creeping desert in the north mean China is losing 25m acres of farmland a year
The first frosts would arrive soon but for now the soil was dark, crumbly and rich.

Not like the hard mud around Shanghai or the dry, sandy soil of Beijing. This is China's bread basket. Wheat has been grown here for thousands of years.

But Zhang Meidi has given up on it.

She laughed, her heavy, gold earrings catching the light.

The prices in the market were good these days, she said, but not for wheat.

Her feet are planted firmly at the bottom of China's great towering economy, but the breadth of her vision would have put a team of Beijing economic planners to shame.

Zhang Meidi could see for miles.

She started by giving me a lesson on China's food chain.

First, she explained, people in China now had more money so they wanted to eat better things, more meat and more fruit and vegetables.

That is why she is growing cabbages.

Her little handkerchief of land would grow enough wheat to earn about 200 ($395) but, by planting cabbages, she had almost trebled her earnings.

And, in the summer, she would grow tomatoes and earn almost 700 ($1,300).

Her husband - wrapping the cabbages against the coming chill - looked on, nodding in agreement and admiration.

All her neighbours were doing the same, she said.

Growing demand

And, sure enough, the little patchwork of plots spreading out around us was a confused jumble.

Wheat was still being grown, but increasingly it was being crowded out by cabbages and other crops too.

Map of China

And that was not the only change taking place around us.

What was once farmland, outside the city of Zhengzhou, was now a suburb.

It still felt rural but now it was - well, more crowded.

There were more homes and roads. Further along the road, there were even fish farms and a huge highway.

Sure, plenty of Chinese are leaving their farms for the city but this was different.

Zhang Meidi and her neighbours were being swallowed up by the city. Urbanisation and the creeping desert in the north mean that China is losing 25 million acres (10m hectares) of farmland a year.

And just as the amount of land is shrinking, the demand for food is getting greater.

When she was younger, Zhang Meidi explained, her family would only have meat on special occasions.

Pork would be served when guests arrived or during China's big national holidays. Now it was on their dinner table two or three times a week.

Move to the cities

And another reason why she is selling so much at the market these days is because of that growing urban population.

Over the next 12 years, an estimated 320 million people will move to cities.

Wheat field in Henan province
There just is not enough to go around, so prices are rising - and will keep going up - until farmers plant more

As one analyst put it, a country larger than the United States will be created by new urban Chinese by 2020.

And when they come to the cities, these new arrivals - almost instantly - start eating more protein.

Now that they no longer grown their own food, and with more wages in their pocket, their diet changes.

So Chinese people are eating less wheat and fewer grains in general because they are upgrading to meats, especially pork.

But that pork comes from hungry pigs who consume a lot more grain.

Of course, yields are getting better, so the same patch of land is growing more corn (maize), rice and soya bean than it once did.

But there is another problem - in China, farms are still just patches of land.

Farmers do not own the land they work - and they cannot sell it - so larger, more efficient farms have not been created.

Acutely aware of the political consequences of landless farmers, rural land reform seems to be one step too far for the leaders in Beijing.

Already, the country that discovered the soya bean has to import most of its needs.

And other crops will follow.

The days of food self-sufficiency in China are numbered.

Rising prices

So, like the rest of us, China will turn to Australia, Africa and South America to fill its belly.

It is small wonder that food prices are climbing everywhere, not just here in China.

There just is not enough of it to go around, so prices are rising - and will keep going up - until farmers plant more.

These changes mean that the coming years will be years of plenty for Zhang Meidi, but she has had it with being a peasant farmer.

She has two sons. One is in university and the other will go there soon.

They will live off their learning, she told me, rather than their labour.

Education is something she did not have but for them it will be different, she said.

Their connection with the land will be broken, they will move to the city and to a wealthier life - a life with more meat, more fruit and more vegetables.

The transformation in China is not just taking place in the factories of Guangdong or the streets of Shanghai.

Changes are taking place here in the very bones of the people and in every last atom of Chinese soil.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 5 January, 2008 at 1130 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.



SEE ALSO
Discontent 'grips Chinese cities'
03 Jan 08 |  Asia-Pacific
Country profile: China
30 Nov 07 |  Country profiles

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