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A traveller's view of food production in China

By Fay Helwig - posted Thursday, 12 June 2008

Historically China has experienced both natural and man made famines. Like country people everywhere, if seasons are benevolent the rural people of China are capable of feeding their families and growing extra food for sale.

I have made four independent trips into China during the past six years. As an Australian primary producer, my attention has been attracted by sights I didn’t understand, which then led me to seek answers.

One matter of interest is the growing use of potatoes as a high energy food. We know that potatoes became a staple food when introduced into Ireland and Germany, but how many of us are aware of their prominence in the diet of the Chinese people?


Why is this? Potatoes grow well in many climates and soil types. They do require considerable water and a nitrogenous fertiliser. Anyone who visits rural areas of Germany in the spring may be appalled at the stink of man and animal sewerage. This is stored over winter and sprayed onto the fields as a form of rich nitrogenous fertiliser as the snow melts. China is no different - rural areas utilise such natural fertilisers.

During May 2007 I spent time in the Yunnan Province of south-western China. The capital, Kunming, is situated on the Tropic of Cancer. Three great rivers run parallel to each other through steep mountains as they depart Tibet before turning in their own direction. They are the Salween, Mekong and Yangzte. The two western rivers flow into Burma and Vietnam. The Yangzte forms a bend to flow north to become the mother river of China.

The western part of Yunnan is mountainous. This province has great variation in regional climates from tropical to alpine. Unique to this province are the range of ethnic minority groups which seem to have flourished over many centuries due to the ability of the region to produce abundant food.

May is the last month of spring in Yunnan prior to the onset of summer rains. Near the first bend of the Yangzte River farmers were harvesting small paddy fields of barley and potatoes in the traditional manner. Oxen were ploughing the ground and other fields were flooded for rice.

South past the bend and further into the Three Rivers region many hectares, beside lesser streams, had already been harvested and were freshly planted with corn and tobacco. Although these fields are intensively cultivated, growing two crops a year, all nutrients are returned to the soil and there would appear to be a rotation between grain, root and leafy vegetable crops.

These crops were not flood irrigated. The ground was hilled in rows and covered with polythene sheeting to prevent weed germination and moisture evaporation. I saw people walking along these rows, carrying a bucket and watering individual plants with a cup. It was likely that the annual rains would begin within two weeks and they would no longer have to undertake this task.


China is the largest producer of tobacco in the world. Traditionally the Chinese government has highly valued the tobacco industry. Export earnings are steadily increasing and are worth about US$120 million a year. In February 2006, the State Department of China issued orders to abolish specific types of agricultural taxation, one form of which applied to tobacco leaves, thus removing the taxation burden from farmers. This action resulted in farmers placing more land under tobacco production.

The greatest problem facing Chinese farmers would appear to be the same problem afflicting many Western countries - the drift of their young people to the cities.

I will digress from the food issue to this particular social situation. Like all Chinese people these farming families have respected the value of education. They have struggled financially to ensure that their sons and daughters received a high school education, as matriculation ensured them of a better paid job or entrance to a university. As a result, they have lost the next generation of farm workers.

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About the Author

Fay Helwig is a primary producer and operates bed and breakfast accommodation in South East Queensland's Granite Belt. She is author of Wildflowers, wilderness and wine.

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