A Great Leap Backward

Written by: Ryan Thiele

The People’s Republic of China has experienced unparalleled economic growth since the reversal of Mao Zedong’s disastrous policies known as the Great Leap Forward, surpassing even the astronomical growth of post-war Japan. Despite the massive industrialization that helped enable the political and economic strength of China, the country is now confronting a food crisis  just as Mao faced decades before that threatens to upend the work of the central planners. China is now forced to look backward, reevaluating how to create a strong foundation for future growth through a more sustainable agricultural system. 

With a population of 1.4 billion people and counting, China requires not only a massive agricultural industry but also more sustainable approaches within that industry to avoid degradation of the already minimal amount of arable land in China. Decades of pesticides and misuse of industrial waste have ravaged the land available for agriculture to the point that 19.4% of arable land is polluted. While the average American requires about 1 acre of land to be fed, China can only give 0.2 of an acre to per citizen, including the polluted lands. 0.2 acres per person is simply not enough to feed a country of 1.4 billion. Furthermore, what fields remain are being swallowed up by local governments and sold to real-estate companies. This, at first, gave municipalities capital to grow their cities, but it was at the expense of land that is in high demand today. The central government is then put in the position of micromanaging lands to produce as much food as possible without ruining the land for future production. 

The rise of an economic middle class and globalization have spurred a transition away from the traditional rice-based diet to a more Western meat-based diet. China now consumes 50% of the world’s pork and its internal farms are being transformed into regions for livestock, if they haven’t already been converted into meat-processing plants. Raising livestock requires a significant amount of feed for the animals, especially corn and grain, compared to requirements for rice-based diets. However, China simply does not have the acreage necessary to produce industrial scales of feed for its growing Western diet. In fact, conversion to a meat-based diet has accelerated water use and termination of cropland. Lester Brown, the founder and president of the Earth Institute, states: “The rapid rate of industrialization in China is really chewing up cropland at an alarming rate.”

To address the upcoming crisis, the government has rapidly expanded agricultural and food imports. By 2050, the nation will import $150 billion in meat assortments alone, and in 2023, China will be the largest importer of corn to feed its livestock. However, the country is quite picky about where it chooses to get its food. In 2013, milk powder from New Zealand was outright banned due to bacterial concerns and the OSI group, an American company, was under investigation for selling mislabeled or expired meat products to other companies. American exports of crops have declined dramatically; the trade war between the two states showed no end in sight until China made the dramatic move to cut tariffs on American pork and soybeans, exemplifying how serious their crisis is becoming. 

The Western diet and limited food production have also inspired the Chinese government and corporations to invest, lease, or outright acquire agricultural land on other continents to then import back home. The Chinese have invested in Western European and Canadian agriculture, while acquiring land throughout central and southern Africa, notably Madagascar, Namibia, and the Congo. In some countries, such as the United States, Australia, and Russia, China has both invested and purchased tracts of agricultural regions. The leasing or building of plantations and factories to produce food seems to be part of a long term project to create trade networks and import new goods into the country. 

With the Earth’s population expected to grow to 9 billion by 2050, China’s food problems are sure to exacerbate as other countries struggle to maintain large agricultural systems for their own populations. Chinese policymakers need to quickly re-evaluate how to best grow food on the little bit of arable land that it has available. They need to develop sustainable options need to be created that won’t repeat the previous decades of mismanagement and environmental harm. Friendly trade relations with countries looking to export food might slow the crisis but at this point, China is going to need a revamp of its whole outlook and take a great leap backward.