Food safety or food security? While the former may be foremost in the mind of Chinese consumers, it is food security that is truly their biggest challenge. The increasing demand for food is constant, driven by a growing population and rising incomes. In fact, only 50% of the growing food demand worldwide will be due to population growth, with the rest due to improved diet and income.
Securing enough food to meet this growing demand is no small feat. China wants to grow its agricultural production towards self-sufficiency, rather than being dependent on other countries. However there are some clear obstacles to get over first, some of which we can relate to in Ireland. Land availability for example. Chinese farmers don't "own" the land they farm - it belongs to "the people" or the chinese nation. Instead, farmers have the right to farm the land for their lifetime. Average farm size is 1Mu, which equates to two-thirds of a hectare, with minimal mechanisation and a high dependency on manual labour. As a farmer, the only way to increase your land base is to "sub-let" land from another farmer. This is one of the few opportunities right now, for land consolidation that will enable modernisation and the adoption of technology, to improve efficiencies. One such example that we visited was the business of Peter Yeung. A Hong Kong native, Peter is currently producing vegetables for the Hong Kong market from two farms in the Chinese mainland, which produce counter-seasonally. In order to secure the right to farm these blocks of land, Peter has had to individually negotiate and draw up contracts with about 10,000 farmers!
The government has produced a strategy document, which includes a specific focus on agriculture, particularly land reform. This is an effort to look at changing the land management rights to enable more land leasing - create larger production units, modernise production and increase output.
Even on these larger production units, there is currently a heavy reliance on manual labour. While labour may be freely available and reasonably affordable at the moment, it is expected that by 2050 only 30% of the population will be of working age. Another challenge is perception of farming. Unlike Ireland and many other countries, farmers in China are considered lower class citizens. It is not a way of life that parents want for their child. This is despite the fact that Chinese farmers are feeding 21% of the world's population (from 10% of the arable land).
Urbanisation is rapid in China, with the government actively moving people into the cities. Almost every town and city that we drove through had clusters of developments - each one with 15-20, 20-storey apartment blocks under construction. It's estimated that by 2030, 200 million people (=10 x Australian population) will have left their farms in the country for a "better" life in the city. Without farmers, who will feed their people?