A vocal Chinese champion self-reliance in food production said the coronavirus pandemic was a window of opportunity for China to refocus on food security and put a brake on urbanisation.
Wu Hui, who teaches at Loudi Vocational School in Hunan province in southern China, has warned in some of his online research papers that China should adopt policies to encourage its rural population to stay in the countryside and continue farming.
He warned that the country must strengthen its food security to avoid becoming reliant on imports to feed its people.
“China’s food security has hinged on imports from overseas and [the situation] is unsustainable,” Wu wrote in one paper, saying his assessment was based on field studies. “One day, we will fall apart just like Venezuela.
“When I visited my home village in Hunan last month, my neighbours said they would still not want to farm even if I offered them three times the market price for their rice,” Wu said. “Almost all of them said they wanted to return to their old jobs in the city [now the epidemic is waning].”
Wu said just three people in his extended family of 66 people continued to grow vegetables.
According to a food security white paper published by the central government in October, the country was more than 95 per cent self-sufficient in major staples like rice, wheat and corn. However, Wu disputed the official account claiming that his own observations did not support it.
“We don’t know where our food comes from,” he said.
The researcher also disagreed with the government’s anti-poverty policies, saying those initiatives were not effective in motivating rural residents to farm.
“The current poverty alleviation policies are about handing out money to farmers, and that is totally wrong as they only distort the market prices [for grain]. The money should be used to increase grain prices so that more people would be willing to farm,” Wu said.
He also suggested that instead of pushing for urbanisation, China should reverse course and focus on agriculture.
Wu said he has conducted field studies in Hunan since 2018 and estimated that as much as a quarter of the farmland had been deserted.
“We should put the abandoned land back into use within three months,” he said.
“Relying on urbanisation is unsustainable and [we should] stop building all this infrastructure [in the cities] so the rural workforce would return to farming in the countryside.”
He said the coronavirus outbreak, which first emerged in the central Chinese city of Wuhan, was a good chance for China to change course.
“Now is a good opportunity because people can keep their distance in the countryside and this can help prevent and control the disease,” he said.
However, Chen Zhiyuan, from the Rice Research Institute of Guangdong Academy of Agricultural Sciences, disagreed with Wu’s estimates on the amount of uncultivated land.
“I don’t think the rate can be as high as 25 per cent. I believe the percentage has fallen instead as we can see that the sales of seedlings have increased,” Chen said.
“The outbreak does have a certain impact [on agriculture] but it is mostly on the feed grains such as soybean and corn for livestock like chickens, ducks and hogs.
The supply of feed grain will be tight because the United States and Brazil have restricted exports. But we don’t need to worry about staples. China’s grain reserves are enough to last for half a year.”
But Chen acknowledged that the coronavirus had affected the workforce and disrupted supply chains in agriculture.
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