In the last 30 years, China has won the battle against famine and hunger, but now, the country is facing new supply problems, forcing it to buy farmland in developing countries.
Food security has China going abroad for land
Even today, most elderly Chinese remember one of the worst famines in human history. The disaster was man-made. It was during China's so-called "Great Leap Forward" campaign, which was supposed to catapult the country into the modern industrial age in a few short years.
Instead, the collectivization of farming and the concentration of workers in absurd projects, like the mass steel production in small backyard blast furnaces, led to enormous crop failures and the complete loss of harvests. More than 20 million Chinese died of hunger.
"When it all started," recalls one mortician, "we used to stick the hanging tongues back into the mouth and stuff cotton into the cheeks. We told ourselves that this was just another bundle of straw; then, it was okay."
Mao Tse-tung implemented 'The Great Leap Forward'
In the collection of interviews "Miss Hello and the Peasant Emperor," the Chinese author Liao Yiwu, who recently fled to Germany, depicts how workers in a crematorium in the early 1960s had to work overtime to burn the countless corpses of those who had died of hunger.
Famines were a regular occurrence
Hunger, even without the political experiments, had been one of the basic experiences of Chinese life for centuries.
In his book, "China: Land of Famine," published in 1927, Walter H. Mallory painted a bleak picture of the last 2,000 years.
Between 108 A.D. and 1911, there were no fewer than 1,828 famines in China, "nearly one every year in some provinces," wrote Mallory.
A shortage of fertile soil and overpopulation has been one of the biggest problems in the country for centuries. Only 15 percent of China is arable land, while drought and flooding occur regularly.
But, despite all the adversities, China has managed to conquer the problem of hunger over the last few decades.
When economic reforms in the early 1980s began replacing the country's command economy, farmers were the first to be allowed to work for themselves. For decades previously, basic foodstuffs could only be bought with coupons distributed by the state. Suddenly, farmer's markets began appearing all over the place, where people could easily buy grain, vegetables and meat.
Between 1978 and 1984, grain production rose by a third. In the decades before, China could barely feed its own citizens; now, it was beginning to export food.
Today, China, with less than 10 percent of the world's arable land, feeds 20 percent of the global population. This has become possible thanks to the extensive use of fertilizers. About 30 percent of the fertilizer produced worldwide ends up on Chinese fields. Just as extensive is the use of pesticides, which are dispersed indiscriminately by Chinese farmers.
China today has enough food, but sometimes its poisoned
The price of this progress is that the Chinese are now more concerned about food poisoning that famine.
Chemical additives are also liberally used in the food processing industry with few controls. In 2008, in China's biggest food scandal to date, more than 300,000 infants were poisoned and six died due to contaminated milk powder.
In some cases, food scandals in China have taken bizarre turns. In April of this year, Chinese consumers complained about pork that glowed blue in the dark. Shortly thereafter, Chinese television broadcast a report about watermelons that exploded in the fields. Farmers had treated them with growth-stimulating chemicals.
"We are very ashamed about this. People have just begun to get enough to eat and now we have this food safety problem. This is highly embarrassing for us," said China's Deputy Premier Wang Qishan in March in unusually candid fashion.
Despite the advances of the last few decades, however, the Chinese government remains very concerned about the food supply situation. Industrialization, urban development and environmental pollution are shrinking the amount of farmland. According to the government's most recent figures, the total acreage available for farming is just above the 120 million hectares (300 million acres) needed to ensure China's self-sufficiency.
China's stated aim to grow enough food to feed itself is more a symbolic pretention than anything else. Beijing possesses the world's largest currency reserves and could easily cover all its food needs with imports. Even so, the government is urging Chinese firms to purchase or lease farmland in other countries to offset its own dwindling acreage.
In addition to India and the Gulf states, China has been strongly criticized for the land grabbing of its big companies in developing countries to the detriment of small farmers.
The critics claim that taking this land away from the local rural populations has exacerbated the poverty situation. Some experts even say that the famine on the Horn of Africa is due to the sale of land by the Ethiopian and Kenyan governments to international agro-business companies.
"Growing food solely for export can lead to severe social tensions," said the German government's Africa expert, Günter Nooke, last July, referring to China. However, a short while later, he retracted his statement, saying that more recent surveys had shown that China had bought less land on the Horn of Africa than assumed. "The Ethiopian government," he said, "has mostly sold land to international investors, like funds, and also to Europeans."
Author: Mathias Bölinger / gb
Editor: Nancy Isenson