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300 million farmers: Agriculture in China

The sheer scale of agriculture in China is startling – 300 million farmers supported by 600,000 extension officers are currently working on reforming agriculture to make the production of food and fibre in China more efficient and productive.

Yet, it is surprising how similar some of the challenges facing agriculture in Australia and China are: Cheng Yingguo from the Chinese Ministry of Agriculture outlined how urban sprawl, the loss of farmland, water shortages, and increasing labour costs put pressure on Chinese farms.

Water shortages in China stem from a mismatch in water distribution between farmland and rainfall – Northern China has over 60 per cent of the arable land but only 20 per cent of all rainfall while Southern China has a little less than 40 per cent of farmland and 80 per cent of all rainfall. Additionally, there is a lot of rain in the South during the summer months while rainfall in the spring when sowing and soil preparation take place is very low.

To address these environmental challenges the Chinese Ministry of Agriculture disseminates research and development in agriculture, largely undertaken by the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences, by employing 600,000 extension officer that promote techniques such as intercropping, mulching, crop rotation and the uptake of new machinery.

China National Cereals, Oils and Foodstuffs Corporation (COFCO) Smart Farm

“China is very proactive in addressing its environmental and food security challenges”, said Scott Kompo-Harms, General Manager of Economics and Trade at the National Farmers’ Federation about his impression of agriculture in China after meeting with the Ministry.

Another part of the solution to mitigate environmental challenges and water shortages in China is investment in urban agriculture, as shown in the COFCO smart farm close to Beijing that integrates water saving and nutrition recycling in a vertical farming system distributed among seven vast greenhouses. The goal of these urban farms is to integrate food production into cities to shorten transport routes.

The COFCO smart farm aims to integrate the primary, secondary and tertiary sector by building a new agritech suburb one hour’s drive away from Beijing, thus bringing China’s rural population and R&D scientists together.

Chinese farmers are increasingly utilising controlled environments to grow horticulture produce.
Toby Locke, CEO, Future Farmers Network

Toby Locke, CEO of the Future Farmers Network, was part of the delegation: “We were lucky enough to see the first sweet potato tree in the greenhouses of the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences.”

The Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences has launched a sustainability project in 2013 to encourage green production through the use of agritech and to transform farming technologies in cooperation with local governments in China’s provinces. 

While high tech farms emerge at the fringes of Beijing, the vast majority of farmers in China still operates on small scale farms. According to the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences, the current reforms to amalgamate tiny farms to increase productivity and efficiency – the average farm size in Southern China is 1/3 hectare per farm – need to be implemented slowly to avoid a spike in unemployment in the rural population. It is interesting to note at this point that all farm land in China is owned by the Collective, not the individual, and that it is the Collective that decides which crops are planted.

We gained a much deeper understanding of Chinese agricultural production and policies.
Scott Kompo-Harms, General Manager of Economics and Trade, National Farmers’ Federation

"It is one thing to read and examine statistics, but it is entirely another to go and see for yourself and talk to people on the ground,” stated Mr Kompo-Harms.

“Prior to this trip, I didn’t know much about China as a country, the agriculture or the people,” said Toby, “the knowledge I have walked away with is invaluable and has inspired me to think outside the square when it comes to agriculture."

Ching Yingguo and Yonghong Zhong from the Chinese Ministry of Agriculture explained to the NFF delegation how research, development and extension of sustainable farming techniques work in their National Agriculture Technology Extension and Service Centre. China faces similar environmental challenges to Australia, having a limited water supply to feed 20% of the world population with 9% of arable land and 7% of the world’s fresh water resources.

With the help of National Farmers' Federation, Australian Government Department of Foreign Affairs, Austrade in China and the Australia-China Council, NFF staff Scott Komp-Harms (General Manager, Economics & Trade) and Maxie Hanft (Policy Officer) travelled to Beijing with three young farmers in late March 2017 to explore how agriculture works in China.  

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