The Threat and Promise of Rural Development in China
F. Thomas Trotter and Zhihe Wang
Originally published in the December 2012 issue of Empirical
China’s stunning economic and industrial growth is breathtaking in its scope. This was confirmed by the extensive coverage of the Beijing Olympic Games. The world saw the dramatic changes in the urban face of the nation. But behind the glittering landscapes lies an urgent challenge that is still to be faced. How will China feed its people?
The concentration of industrial enterprises in the eastern part of the nation has profoundly shaped the landscape. Ten cities have populations of about 10 million and urban growth continues. Yet the amazingly rapid modernization of China thus far has barely scratched the surface of the nation’s rural life. President Hu Jintao has asked the nation to work together on a project called “Building New Countryside” under the slogan “putting people first.” He has said, “the only way to ensure sustainable development of the national economy and continuous expansion of domestic demand is to develop the rural economy and help farmers become more affluent.”
But what will Hu’s “sustainable development” mean for rural China? China’s leadership faces a daunting problem. Acceptance of Western industrial models has proven extraordinarily successful in manufacturing. So the probability is that Western industrial models will offer agricultural planners an immediate solution. If so, there will be predictable catastrophic consequences. The most dramatic consequence will be a vast dislocation of population. If peasant farming is replaced by corporate farming, productivity of labor would be increased. Indeed fully ‘modern’ agriculture in China would only require about 13 million farmers, or only 1% of China’s population. Then China would have to absorb the hundreds of millions of people who will become surplus labor in the countryside. It is estimated that nearly 800 million people would leave rural areas and move to cities. Or, to use a more dramatic illustration, an additional 80 cities, each with a population of 10 million, would be required.
Another consequence flows from the fact that modern industrial farming is driven by petroleum. Adding commitment to petroleum to drive agriculture is problematic given the present reality of scarcity of oil and the prospect of exhaustion of oil reserves in the foreseeable future. We now know that CO2 released from burning fossil fuels is negatively affecting the biosphere upon which all life depends.
Agricultural modernization means increased irrigation, and petroleum-based farming results in more pollution of water. Water is already scarce in northern China and much of what remains is polluted. The melting of the Tibetan glaciers due to global warming threatens water shortages in central China as well. A further by product of modern agriculture is soil degradation. With all our scientific ingenuity, the challenge of producing food without erosion and salinization remains. Pre-modern and modern agriculture present a history of environmental devastation.This on-going devastation is due to the 10,000 year old practice of cultivation. Plow any land long enough and it will turn into a desert of sand or a field of rock.
Is there an alternative to the dangers of industrial agriculture in China? Modernization of agriculture follows quite naturally from what some intellectuals are calling the “First Enlightenment.” This was based on following the European Enlightenment in adopting the mechanistic world view as the basis for development. Mao and other 20th-century political figures correctly discerned that China needed to commit itself to Western methods of industrialization to become a modern nation. In that commitment, however, there was a tragic rejection of a culture that involved a way of life and an ethical consensus that had sustained the Chinese people for millennia. The most egregious evidence of the rejection of China’s cultural achievements was the excesses of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976).
Partly in reaction to the Cultural Revolution, many Chinese began to re-appraise Chinese cultural values. These include respect for family and community, respect for the earth and other forms of life, respect for tradition and the rituals that hold people together, a sense of the spirituality found in harmony between people and nature, and a way of living (Shangquing) that provides peace in human affairs.
Contemporary industrialized society in China appears to have rejected these classical values and any form of Western ethic other than the private freedom in the market place. Many Chinese are now concerned about the future of a society that lacks any cohesive moral teaching.
The main reason for breaking with the Chinese tradition was that it had not encouraged the development of advanced science and technology. Recently many Chinese are re-thinking the possibility of linking traditional values with science and technology. Some have called this the “Second Enlightenment.” They have been encouraged to believe this is possible by their encounter with the Western philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead. Although Whitehead has been largely ignored in the West, eighteen Chinese universities have established centers to promote study of his thought.
Whitehead’s philosophy suggests that traditional Chinese thought can connect with contemporary science. Whitehead built a non-mechanistic conceptuality for science based on relativity theory and quantum theory. His “process philosophy” (as it has come to be known), or “philosophy of organism” (as Whitehead himself referred to it), is closer to the basic way of thinking of traditional China than to the mechanistic and reductionistic philosophy to which the First Enlightenment wedded progressive movements in China. Some Chinese intellectuals are now calling for a Second Enlightenment that unites much of their Chinese heritage with the cutting edge of contemporary science.
The Second Enlightenment has implications for many fields.
Thus far its most extensive application has been in education. But today rural development and agriculture are top priorities. Rather than simply supposing that agricultural development requires the acceptance of Western industrial models, the Second Enlightenment calls for a second look at earlier cultural values and the wisdom of traditional Chinese farmers.
Traditional models of agriculture include the use of organic fertilizers. In the Tang Dynasty (618 AD to 907 AD), emperors encouraged “circular” agriculture. Pigs produced organic fertilizer which produced food which made possible the acquisition of more pigs. Although China’s population has grown dramatically in the last two millennia, its traditional agriculture has so far met basic food needs. Even today the Chinese feed one-fourth of the world’s population on only seven percent of the world’s land surface. Instead of displacing the wisdom of traditional agriculture, the Second Enlightenment calls for working with farmers to overcome problems of production they identify.
Reflecting on Chinese cultural tradition and stimulated by the constructive postmodernism of Whitehead, there are some general principles rising into agricultural planning: (1) The fertility of the eco-system must be recognized and respected. (2) Bare soil must be recognized as a crime against the earth. (3) Biological and solar-intensive farming systems should prevail. (4) Agriculture is more than food and fiber production.
Traditionally, plowing has been used to control weeds by maintaining bare soil. Herbicides are a remarkable invention, but weak resistance to these widely used chemicals is prevalent after just 30 years of use. The modern ‘Green Revolution’ can now feed 6.5 billion people, but not sustainably. Ultimately the soil itself will be exhausted by current practice. Today’s modern farming practices and technologies cannot continue for the next 100 years.
Only in the past 20 or so years has dry-land agriculture begun to demonstrate how to grow crops without cultivation. ‘No-tillage’ (no plow) farming systems keep the soil covered by green or dry vegetation. This system has been widely adopted in some parts of Australia and the USA. No-tillage farming systems have been shown to greatly reduce soil erosion, particularly wind erosion. But these systems are entirely dependent on petro-chemicals, particularly herbicides to control weeds. Dependence on petro-chemicals carries with it more environmental degradation.
Another major problem in China is that as rural population becomes denser, farms have become smaller. Farming methods that produced a decent living a century ago on larger plots of land cannot support families today. Either there must be some migration to the cities or even more intensive agricultural practices. Furthermore, the question of who owns the land remains a severe problem for rural populations in China as in many other places.
Modern agricultural economy is not resilient. It is fragile and is easily broken. It cannot withstand climatic and social shocks. Modern agriculture feeds billions of people in thousands of cities by shipping food great distances in fossil fueled ships, trains, and trucks. Take for example greater New York City of 15 million people. 3,000 train cars a year transport food from all over the world to feed this megalopolis. Each year 100 million bananas are imported from plantations in Central and South America. Other fruits and vegetables (1.4 billion kg/yr) are imported from over 25 other countries in the northern and southern hemispheres. 100 million kg of fish from 300 different species are transported from around the globe in constantly refrigerated containers.
New York would begin to starve in less than one week if the global or local transportation and refrigeration systems failed. This vast food distribution system is totally dependent on fossil fuels, well-maintained rails and roads, airports, and good governance (lack of war and free trade). Remember the consequences of a twelve-hour storm (Katrina) and subsequent flooding on the population of the small city of New Orleans? Social order collapsed, people became thirsty in twelve hours and hungry in twenty-four hours. Any city in China is similarly dependent on fragile food supply networks that could be disrupted in seconds as occurred after the 2008 earthquake in Sichuan Province.
It is possible that concern about these vast problems will overwhelm thoughtful planning and lead to despair. Should this happen and no significant change take place, rural China might be left to stagnate. The social dislocation of this failure would have enormous consequences, not just for China, but for the entire world. Remarkably, China’s leadership is more open than that of most nations to recognizing problems of this sort. They are not content with slogans but are taking action in positive directions. In 2005, the central government launched an experimental project to establish a “Green GDP.” Cities and provinces, including Beijing, Tianjin, Hebei, Liaoning, Zhejiang, Anhui, Guangdong, Hainan, Chongqing, and Sichuan have all joined the project. Now concluded, the project’s findings are being studied and evaluated by the government and by concerned NGOs. There has been a remarkable development of eco-villages, eco-counties, even eco provinces to contribute to the growing concern for environmental planning.
Can the Second Enlightenment find a practical program for the development of agriculture in China? If so, does it have a chance of getting a hearing from decision makers in the West? Perhaps. The daily headlines about peak oil, global food shortages, social unrest in countries where agriculture is being modernized, and the obviously unsustainable nature of modern industrial agriculture may combine to cause Chinese leaders to seek an alternative.
By the year 2030, China’s population is predicted to increase by another five hundred million people, and most of these people will have to be accommodated in cities. If China takes the agricultural modernization route, the grim scenario of vast population shifts to urban centers may well continue. But we are saying that it may avoid that by careful planning. Nevertheless its cities will certainly have to absorb most of the population increase. China loses about 1 percent of its agricultural lands to urbanization and industrial sprawl annually.
So how will China feed its people?
China’s problem is the world’s problem. Lester Brown, the leading environmentalist in the world and founder of Worldwatch and the Earth Policy Institute, forecasts “when China turns to world markets on an ongoing basis, its food scarcity will become the world’s scarcity; its shortages of cropland and water will become the world’s shortages.” The economic and political consequences are unimaginable.
We Americans are only beginning to awake to the reality of world food crisis and the political and social consequences of such a disaster. Now is the time for thoughtful reflection and action to support research in agricultural sustainability and survival of the world’s fragile agricultural resources. In a tentative but definite way China’s leadership is moving in the right direction. We ignore China’s initiatives in reshaping agriculture at our peril.
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