Challenges to Family Farming in Chine [*]
Veeck, Gregory, Shaohua, Wang, The Geographical Review
ABSTRACT. China's agricultural sector requires reforms to assure farmers and consumers of fair prices while protecting the environment and permitting sustainable growth in the coming years. The affluent eastern province of Jiangsu is an appropriate site in which to explore the effects of agricultural reforms on rural households and, in turn, the efforts of these households on the environment. We compare two surveys (1987 and 1996), of 100 households each, of farmers in Huaiyin and Huai' an Counties, Jiangsu Province. Indicated are chronically low economic returns on grain, moderate returns for livestock, and the highest returns for vegetables. Unfortunately, the production of livestock and vegetables requires more farm chemicals, inorganic fertilizers, and placement of field plastic--all of which are associated with greater environmental problems. Keywords: agriculture, China, Jiangsu Province, rural development.
China's leaders recall with ritual regularity agriculture's place as the very "foundation" of the state economy. Farmers, in turn, are assumed to be the "pillars" upon which society rests (Beijing Review 1998; Li 1998). This rhetoric, which in 1996 then-Premier Li Peng used to evoke Mao Tse-tung's rural strategy dating from the earliest days of the Chinese Communist Party, has come to sound hollow in recent years (Li P. 1996). In the modern People's Republic of China (PRC), where high incomes are associated with light-industry or service-sector jobs in urban places, the Confucian line that farmers should receive the utmost respect from all members of society requires a bit of a stretch. In fact, in early 2000 the social and cultural gaps between farmers and city-dwellers in China are greater than ever, and farmers are being singled out as having caused economic and environmental problems that are distinctly beyond their control.
Fiscal reform of the farm sector and environmental protection in China area admittedly complex issues, often viewed in academic research from towering macro-policy or national political economy perspectives (Sicular 1988, 1991; Perkins 1991; Hsueh, Sung, and Yu 1993; Smil 1993; Brown 1995; Huang 1998). These clinically removed approaches are appropriate and necessary, but the picture they paint is in complete. Two surveys of 100 households we conducted ten years apart in Huaiyin and Huai'an Counties, in the most important agricultural region of northern Jiangsu Province, help to fill in the gaps (Figure 1). The first survey was carried out in September and October 1987. The follow-up, with a 30 percent overlap in the sample, was done in January 1996 to document changes in the agricultural economy. These economic and environmental changes challenge China's entire agricultural sector. With this research, we seek to place in a specific local context the broader debates on national food supply, the efficacy of c urrent pricing and marketing policies, and potential environmental problems. To understand these complex issues more fully, we return to the farm, where production decisions are made one plot, one yuan, or one hour at a time. The farmers in our samples cannot change the broader and inaccessible policies related to interest rates, prices, land tenure, land use, or environmental protection. They instead respond, and quickly, to fresh commercial opportunities and new prices. Each season they can change what they grow, how they grow it, where they sell it, and to whom they sell it.
How, then, have family farm strategies and agricultural investments changed in the past decade of reform? Are matters better or worse? Secondarily, but related to the first set of financial matters, are environment-related issues. Do farmers in Jiangsu contribute to environmental problems? If so, how do these families pollute or cause environmental damage? Are the farmers aware of these issues? What mutually beneficial adjustments might be made to meet the needs of the state, of urban consumers, and of farmers?
AGRICULTURE DURING CHINA's 1980--PLUS REFORM ERA
Farming as a way of life has never been easy in China, and the post-Mao reform era is certainly no exception. Given the success of the agricultural sector during the reform era, however, it seems reasonable to ascribe the gratitude of city people to the efforts of China's 330 million farmers. In terms of gross production, early-reform-era farmers were fantastically successful. Grain output increased by about 200 million metric tons to 505 million metric tons from 1978 to 1996, two decades during which the extent of arable land actually declined (Brown 1995; ZTN 1997). Total gross output value from field agriculture increased twelvefold, reflecting the diversification and commercialization of an agricultural sector encouraged by reform programs (Nong 1995; ZTN 1997,369). Regularly overlooked is the role of countless state-supported farm extension agents and researchers who have educated farmers and promoted new varieties, new products, and new techniques. This educational effort, coupled with changes in politi cal and economic conditions, has transformed the rural workforce and the rural landscape. It has also provided China's dietary table with unprecedented volume and variety: not only more grain but also more fruits, more vegetables, more eggs, more dairy products, more aquacultural products, and, above all, more meat.
As China's agricultural sector has changed, so have the producers. In twenty years, farmers have faced novel problems and challenges. The agricultural landscape has been vigorously altered by these policy and programmatic shifts. For example, land sown to vegetables increased from 3.2 million hectares in 1979 to 11.29 million hectares in 1997. Farm households now look to urban consumers, rather than to state grain markets, for profits (Leeming 1994; ZTN 1998,385). Since 1991 the PRC has maintained a commanding lead over the United States as first among countries in production of meat: In 1997 China produced 51,521,000 metric tons (ZTN 1998,386). This is an unimaginable amount of meat, especially when compared with a total production one-sixth as large in 1978, at 8,563,000 metric tons (ZTN 1984,160). China's farmers accounted for more than one-quarter (25.13 percent) of total global meat production (ZTN 1997,390,837). Household-owned hog-feeding lots with hogs numbering in the hundreds are now common through out East and Southeast China. Minuscule when compared with those found in the United States (Hart 1997) but large in historical terms, such feeder operations are visible manifestations of a specialization in family farming that did not exist in the early reform era.
Despite this success, farmers are frustrated--indeed, angry. Throughout the reform era, farmers have put more products of better quality on the tables of an ever-increasing Chinese urban population, but they have little to show for their efforts. Since 1978, farm households have become reluctant to grow grain, which offers the lowest returns on labor and investment. In the early 2000s, however, the bottom has fallen out of the meat and vegetable markets that held such promise three or four years ago. Farmers maintain that the low prices paid by the government for grain (once again a government monopoly) and the higher fees and rents they must pay for land where they can produce other crops represent "hidden" subsidies that they have borne for far too long. Current issues of greatest concern to farmers revolve around farm economics: the high price of inputs; low prices for grain, oils, and cotton; and the rampant practice of requiring local management fees and usufruct charges. They want unfettered and reliab le access to markets for all of their products all of the time.
Moreover, farmers in China--like their counterparts elsewhere--are exposed to a considerable range of natural hazards, including floods, droughts, locust and grasshopper plagues, salinization, and landslides. Droughts and floods occur somewhere in China every year, and they confound planners and projections while causing great personal hardship (Sun 1988; NBBB 1996; Liu, Zhang, and Wan 1997). The effects of natural disasters on local farm economies cannot be overlooked, but, as Yak-yeow Kueh recently argued in his study of agricultural instability in China from 1931 to 1991, annual fluctuations in China's grain production are as much the result of policy as of environmental factors (Teiwes and Sun 1993; Kueh 1995, Kung 1995). Not the least of the policy-related problems are those associated with pricing and distribution systems. It was the reform of these that Prime Minister Zhu Rongji, speaking in July 1998, called the most important work that the government could undertake for the agricultural sector (Li 19 98).
The hardships of farming caused by nature and politics have not changed, yet in recent years urban consumers have grown less sympathetic to the plight of farmers as urban economic problems have mounted. City-dwellers would remind farmers that farm families pay minimal rent, shipping, and storage costs for grain and that the state has spent considerable sums of money during the reform era on research and development, infrastructure, and other investments that have measurably improved the lives of rural folk. The air is clean (if the water is not), housing is relatively spacious (if rustic), and farmers can grow their own food. Most of the basic needs of farmers are relatively immune to the inflationary cycles (or recessions) and fiscal reforms that frighten most urban Chinese.
Furthermore, as in the United States, urban consumers in China hope that their food is safe but have little faith that this is always the case. Stories of pollution and poisonings due to abuses of farm and agroprocessing chemicals are common countrywide. Perhaps, with the remarkable increases in the use of farm chemicals and pesticides, there really are more problems, more tragedies, and so, more indignation. Or perhaps people just feel more comfortable about expressing their complaints now. Although it may not be completely clear why, it is certain that public demands for safe and sustainable agriculture are mounting.
These gaps in concerns and perceptions seem important. Urban consumers are beginning to realize that the great accomplishments of the agricultural sector during the reform era have come at a cost to the environment and the national budget. These issues have gained the attention of a previously indifferent public, and farmers, once the darlings of the revolution, find themselves with fewer and fewer supporters--in government and out.
The severe floods of the summer of 1998 that killed--officially--3,656 persons and destroyed an estimated U.S.$30 billion worth of crops and property …
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Publication information: Article title: Challenges to Family Farming in Chine [*]. Contributors: Veeck, Gregory - Author, Shaohua, Wang - Author. Journal title: The Geographical Review. Volume: 90. Issue: 1 Publication date: January 2000. Page number: 57. © 1998 American Geographical Society. COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group.
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