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Food and farming in China

25th August 2006

Emma Hockridge reports on food and farming in the world’s fastest growing economy.

The traditional image of China is one of a huge rural population, of peasant farmers in straw hats tending paddy fields by hand. More recently China has also become known for its powerhouse economy, producing many of the manufactured goods we take for granted in the West. Despite these strong images, China remains a mystery to many, in part due to a lack of openness in the Chinese political system.

As part of a group of UK and Australian Nuffield farm scholars I travelled to China in July to attempt to gain a better a better knowledge of Chinese food and farming and the recent changes that have occurred within the industry.

Chinese food and agriculture is full of huge contrasts, as is the country itself. During the 'official' tour, led by government officials, we were taken to the shiniest research institutes and what were thought to be the most efficient, and therefore best, farms. Luckily, as a result of having personal contacts in the country, we were also able to see some of the 'real' China, typified by village farms, each divided into holdings of half an acre per person. In these villages, oxen are still used to plough the vegetable plots, and pigs are still slaughtered on site for feast days.

The tour began in Guangzhou (formerly known as Canton), a bustling and thriving city with a population of 6.6 million people. The Southern Chinese population has a traditionally rice-based diet due to the hot and wet climatic conditions.

The people around the Guangzhou region are renowned across China for the huge diversity of food they consume. There is an expression they will 'eat anything with legs, unless it is a table and anything that flies unless it is an aeroplane'!

Our group was fortunate to be given the opportunity to try a number of delicacies including silk worms, frogs with chilli, and of course the ubiquitous chicken feet. The dishes were met with varying levels of approval, but everyone tried them at least once. My personal favourite were the roasted silk worms, which were crunchy and delicately flavoured.

A visit to the Chinese Livestock Commission, an organisation that ominously includes the Kennel Club of China, revealed that there have been huge increases in the amount of meat that Chinese citizens consume, with a production level of 40 million tonnes per year 15 years ago, to a current level of 70 million tonnes per year, which is expected to rise to 77 million tones by 2010. This increase is mainly as a result of rising incomes amongst the population.

Chinese cattleAnimal welfare is low on the agenda in China’s expanding dairy industry. These cattle are shackled by short metal chains and stand on concrete floors.

Animal welfare is not an important issue in China. When the cage sizes for EU battery hens were explained, one government representative said "in China we could use this to raise cattle!" Such attitudes were also in force at the region's largest dairy farm, where a herd of 3,000 Friesian cattle (the average UK herd is around 90 cows) was kept on concrete floors in 90% humidity and in temperatures of 340C, shackled to short chains. It was not surprising that we saw widespread evidence of lameness and mastitis.

Dairy farming may seem out of place in a country where lactose intolerance is very common, but the government officials who led our visit skipped over this point (along with many others), telling us that such dietary intolerance only affects around 10% of the population. Although there are no official figures, studies have indicated that lactose intolerance affects around 30% of Chinese children, and a study of Chinese adults showed 92.3% suffered from some level of lactose mal-absorption.

Despite this, there is a huge push to encourage Chinese people to drink more milk. It is advertised as important for good health, the government funds milk rounds to schools and the state-run television has aired programmes on the benefits of milk drinking. Many of the world's top dairy companies have entered China as a result of seeing the huge potential market of 1.3 billion inhabitants – though many of these companies find it hard to find reliable and hygienic supplies of raw milk in China itself.

The people in the South were noticeably of a much smaller build than those living in the larger cities in the North, such as Shanghai and Beijing. Here the diet traditionally contains many more wheat-based dishes, such as noodles and dumplings. Such grains are grown due partly due to the lower rainfall and richer soils of the area. There are also more market-based reasons for the increased size of people. In these cities, with their strong Western links, the march of Starbucks, Papa Johns pizza, and of course McDonald’s is clear to see, along with the health impacts that a Western diet can bring. Obesity amongst children is rapidly growing, with the incidence of overweight and obese children growing from 7.7% to 12.4% in urban areas from 1991-1997, but only 5.9% to 6.4% in rural areas.

Such fast food outlets are paraded as paragons of the country's economic development, and are prominently positioned in the centre of the cities. New development is to be seen everywhere. Motorways, railways and hotels are appearing with amazing rapidity, with huge teams of labourers working at all hours of the day and night, precariously balanced on traditional bamboo scaffolding. Such development is in part due to the upcoming Beijing Olympics in 2008.

Activity on an (almost!) Olympic level can be seen every day in the country's parks, where groups of elderly people can be seen exercising on brightly coloured gym equipment, and taking part in group Tai Chi, which contributes to the visible sprightliness of the older members of the population. When asked why no young people were taking part, the usual response was that demanding jobs simply did not allow the necessary time for exercise.

City-based jobs are highly sought after, particularly by those living and farming in the countryside due to the much higher wages offered. Twenty years ago an estimated 71% of Chinese were rural farmers; that figure is now down to 51%.

Although Chinese agricultural markets have become much more decentralised, the government continues to regard self-sufficiency in grain as a strong guiding principle. The question is often asked as to whether China can continue to maintain self-sufficiency despite its increasing, and ever more urbanised, population.

Water is a key constraint, due to inefficient irrigation systems and pollution. Land is another major constraint – the country has around 22% of the world's population but only 7% of its arable land. Excessive ploughing has meant that vast dust bowls have been created in the North, whilst land in the fertile south-east has been taken up by urban and industrial expansion.

Farm in ChinaFarmer in the Guangdong province tending a variety of gourd known as Cee Gwa, or Chinese Okra. The vegetables are grown on a bamboo structure for local consumption or sale at local markets. The gourds are easily grown in the UK, and can be eaten like squash when young, or dried to be used as 'loofahs' to clean your skin, or dishes!

Researchers believe that with sufficient investment China can continue to feed itself, but one has to question what the cost will be. Suggested 'improvements' include the use of more nitrate fertilisers and more genetically modified crops.

Since the establishment of a new social order in 1949, improvements in nutrition have led to a significant decline in diet-related deficiency disorders such as goitre, rickets and beri beri. However, the introduction of a more Western diet, high in fats and sugars, could mean that such improvements in health might be offset by new diseases related to obesity.

The decline in traditional farming methods and the increase in meat consumption has the potential to bring instability and even greater environmental problems to a country with such a huge population, but only a relatively small area of land on which it can farm.

Notes

Emma Hockridge works for Sustain’s Hospital Food Project, helping UK hospitals to buy more local and sustainably produced food. See http://www.sustainweb.org/

For more information on the Nuffield Farming Scholarships Trust see http://www.nuffieldscholar.org/