China’s ability to feed a fifth of the world’s population will become tougher because of land degradation, urbanization and over-reliance on fossil fuels and fertilizer, a UN envoy warned on Thursday as grain and meat prices climbed on global markets.
With memories still fresh of the famines that killed tens of millions of people in the early 1960s, the Chinese government has gone to great lengths to ensure the world’s biggest population has enough to eat, but its long-term self-sufficiency was questioned by Olivier De Schutter, the UN special rapporteur on the right to food.
“The shrinking of arable land and the massive land degradation threatens the ability of the country to maintain current levels of agricultural production, while the widening gap between rural and urban is an important challenge to the right to food,” De Schutter said at the end of a trip to China.
His main concern was the decline of soil quality because of fertilizers, pollution and drought. He noted that 37 percent of China’s territory was degraded and 8.2 million hectares of arable land has been lost since 1997 to cities, industrial parks, natural disasters and forestry programs.
Further pressure has come from an increasingly carnivorous diet, which has meant more grain is needed to feed livestock. The combination is driving up food inflation. In the past year, rice has gone up by 13 percent, wheat by 9 percent, chicken by 17 percent, pork by 13 percent and eggs by 30 percent.
“This is not a one-off event. The causes are structural,” the envoy said. “The recent food price hikes in the country are a harbinger of what may be lying ahead.”
With climate change expected to increase price volatility and cut agricultural productivity by 5 percent to 10 percent by 2030, De Schutter said it was essential for China to wean itself off fossil fuel-intensive farming and adopt more sustainable agricultural techniques, including organic production, and to make even better use of its two great strengths: a huge strategic grain reserve and a large rural population.
He said other countries should learn from China’s food reserve, which accounts for 40 percent of the nation’s 550 million tonne grain supply and is released to minimize the impact of market price fluctuations.
He also cautioned against a shift toward industrial-scale farming, which increases economic competitiveness at the cost of natural productivity. However, he acknowledged this may prove difficult as more of China’s 200 million farmers move to the cities.
The widening rural-urban gap has hit supply and demand of food in other ways. Nationwide nutrition levels have risen, but the growing income disparity has left sharp discrepancies in access to food.
While some poor rural families in western China scrape by with two meals a day, wealthy urban households on the eastern seaboard eat so well that they are prone to the “rich diseases” of obesity and diabetes.
In his report to the Chinese government and the UN, De Schutter also raised the case of Tibetan and Mongolian nomads who have been relocated from the grasslands under a controversial resettlement scheme and pressed Beijing to ensure that consumers have the freedom to complain when food safety is compromised.
He spoke specifically about Zhao Lianhai (趙連海), a former food-safety worker who was jailed last month for organizing a campaign for compensation over a contaminated milk scandal that left 300,000 ill and killed at least six babies.