Asia-Pacific, Development & Aid, Headlines

CHINA-FOOD: Now, the Agri-Cultural Revolution

Kunda Dixit

LIUMINYING, China, Aug 22 1996 (IPS) - The poplar-lined road turns off from the main highway 50 kms south of Beijing, slices through neat rows of vegetables, along irrigated fields of rice and passes poultry factories to the reception hall for visitors.

In a country of socialist traditions where the rest of the nation has always been told to fulfil quotas and emulate the shining example set by ideal over-achievers, Liuminying is a demonstration farm.

Since the days of the 1966-1976 Cultural Revolution when then Communist Party leader Mao Zedong sent millions of young people into rural China “to plant grain everywhere”, Liuminying has been a cut above other farms — in terms of raising production, diversifying crops and experimenting with new technology.

Back then, Liuminying was a model of a socialist commune.

Adapting adroitly to the post-Mao era, it became a model for China’s contract responsibility system that gave private farmers incentives to produce more. And today, in liberalising China, it has become a model enterprise, even setting up a joint venture factory to export sleeping bags and tents to Germany.

Liuminying is such a success story that the farm now has a separate unit just to show visitors around. Many foreign dignitaries in China find Liuminying included in their itinerary by their local hosts. In the past ten years, some 190,000 visitors, local and foreign, have toured the farm.

Zhang Shanao is now 70, and a retired farmer. “Our success is due to the hard work that the villagers have put into making Liuminying a model village,” he says.

The village’s small population of 900 today has a standard of living much higher than the national average. It is not difficult to see why: the farm gets full support from the government to serve as an example and a showcase.

At the visitor centre, officials rattles off the statistics: the farm produces 100,000 chicken a year, 5,000 pigs, 200,000 roast ducks for Beijing’s restaurants, 200,000 kgs of milk a year and it has recently bought 30 trucks to start a driving school.

But most importantly, Liuminying is today presented to visitors as China’s response to the challenge of feeding its huge 1.2 billion population — not through commercial industrialised farming of the North American variety, but using ecological agriculture.

Ecological farming maximises solar energy use by plants and promotes recycling of organic nutrients. It is less energy intensive, does not rely on chemical fertilisers and pesticides and is suited to self-reliant, low-investment small farms. It is more sustainable and does not destroy the soil.

“Ecological agriculture has transformed Liuminying,” says Bian Yousheng, an agronomist with the Beijing Municipal Institute of Environmental Protection. “And it holds the answer to raising food production all over China.”

China’s grain production shot up after farm reforms, raising harvests from 200 million tons in 1977 to 300 million tons in 1984. Since then, the growth has not been as phenomenal.

Meanwhile, China has to feed an additional 15 million people every year and to satisfy the higher meat consumption of newly- affluent Chinese it uses more grain — cancelling out past gains. By 2030, China’s consumption of grain is expected to hit 480 million tons: nearly double the projected growth in production.

After initial denial, even the Chinese leadership is now taking dire predictions of the looming food crisis seriously.

Last year’s pessimistic report by the Washington-based Worldwatch Institute which concluded that China was losing the capacity to feed itself has reportedly been translated into Chinese and circulated to high officials.

Not everyone is pessimistic. The U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) says China’s rice yields have doubled to six tons per hectare since 1980, and it says this can go up to eight tons. There is still a vast potential for marginal land to be brought into cultivation.

Although farmlands are being devoured by expanding cities, highways and dams, China still has 60 million hectares of farmlands where yield could be increased by better irrigation.

Chinese experts like Bian Yousheng are convinced that ecological agriculture is not only environmentally friendly, but can give sustained high yields and also makes economic sense.

In Liuminying, for instance, almost nothing is wasted. The slurry from the piggeries, poultry farms, the dairy and even human excreta from public toilets are fed into a giant bio-gas system that generates methane gas for cooking and heating in the village, the digested material is used as fertiliser in fields.

The farm has managed to save 100 tons of coal use annually, and it has reduced chemical fertilisers from 250,000 kgs per year in 1982 to less than 70,000 kgs last year. Pesticide use has been reduced to a minimum.

With the help of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), Liuminying has also built a large-scale high temperature bio-gas units to replace smaller ones. Methane from the new digester is piped to each household.

Liuminying has obviously benefited and prospered because of its showcase status, and its proximity to Beijing has turned the village into a demonstration project.

The real challenge for the Beijing Municipal Institute of Environmental Protection is to replicate Liuminjing’s success in more remote Chinese villages, in households and not just on a collective farm.

Says Bian Yousheng: “We have tried to take the lessons from Liuminying to more than 1,600 farms all across the country.”

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