After the floods that ruined the central to southern parts of China in 1998, Beijing launched the “Grain for Green program” (or “returning farmland to the forest program”) to address the problem of soil erosion due to deforestation. Under the program, rural households were compensated for their farmlands, which were converted to forestland. As a result of the program, China’s forest cover has increased from 8 percent in 1960 to today’s 21 percent.
However, the well-praised program has been slowly reversed since 2020, with forestland being converted into farmland to boost grain output. As rainy seasons increase soil erosion and cause increased flooding, some Chinese citizens have turned to social media to voice criticisms, sharing videos of felled forests and severe soil erosion in newly developed farmland.
Below is one widely shared video showing how newly developed farmland near the hillside was destroyed in a storm:
— 新闻调查 (@xinwendiaocha) May 7, 2023
As summer rainfall came and newly developed terraced fields, which were converted from forestland to farmland, were ruined.
Food security concerns
Under the leadership of Chinese President Xi Jinping, ensuring the country’s food security has been one of the top goals of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). His phrase, “Chinese people’s rice bowls must always be held firmly in our own hands with Chinese grains in them,” became the guiding principle of the country’s agricultural policy.
Amidst increasing concern over geopolitical risk triggered by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and tense cross-strait relations between China and Taiwan, the food security crisis has been magnified. At the past National People’s Congress (NPC) opening in March, the outgoing Premier Li Keqiang said that China would boost its grain output by 50 million tonnes in 2023 and build storage centers for emergency supplies of daily necessities.
Although China’s total grain output — up to 686.53 million tons in 2022 — could fully feed its 1.3 billion population, it remains the world’s biggest food importer. In fact, the country’s food consumption self-sufficiency ratio has decreased from 93.6 percent in 2000 to 65.8 percent. The ruling party considers this trend a food security crisis.
To address the crisis, China is set to boost annual grain output, with 103 million hectares of the total 120 million hectares of arable land dedicated to grain production. It will also bolster its seed sector, strengthen the rural governance system, provide billions of subsidies to revitalize the agricultural sector, and more.
To meet the target, the country has to increase the farmlands available for grain production. However, most farmers are not incentivized to plant grain as cash crops such as fruit trees and flowers are more profitable. Hence, local governments are resorting to political campaigns and coercive measures to convert land for grain output by enforcing rural management of lands armed with new local law enforcement teams known as “nonguan,” who are interfering in countless aspects of rural life and livelihoods.
Replacing forests with terraced rice fields
In the past few months, farmers shared videos showing how their cash crops, such as fruit trees, have been uprooted to make way for grain fields. The following footage came from Zhejiang province:
— 新闻调查 (@xinwendiaocha) April 28, 2023
In Zhejiang, the bamboo trees were planted for three years, and now they had to be logged down in order to convert the land to farmland. This is crazy!
Another video shows that the “green wall” built to block sandstorms near Harbin city has been uprooted:
视频【退林还耕：砍伐防护林】 https://t.co/rmrWysA688 pic.twitter.com/ZyIOmzSIk9
— 章立凡 Zhang Lifan (@zhanglifan) April 30, 2023
No wonder the sandstorms in northern provinces occurred so frequently. Giving up the “green water and mountain” for “food security”…
Video from “Returning forest to farmland: chopping down the ‘green wall.'”
Since China has less than 10 percent arable land, with some of it appropriated for non-agricultural purposes, including storage space, car parks, village houses, farms for livestock, roads, and bicycle lanes, parks, and green spaces, some local governments are looking to hilly areas for new opportunities, under the campaign slogan “Planting Rice fields Up the Hill” (水稻上山).
One upland rice project occurred in Yunnan, with about 30,000 hectares of forest land converted to terraced fields for growing upland rice. The video below shows one of the upland rice plantation sites in Yunnan:
— 小明 (@yulin18494807) May 5, 2023
Yunnan learnt from Dazhai (a village in Shanxi province, which served as the model for agricultural production throughout China during the 1960s and 1970s), planting rice fields up the hill.
The uphill farmland development project was based on an initial experiment of growing upland rice in an agriculture research center. Zhu Youyong, a plant pathologist and a representative of the NPC, claimed that the research team managed to have an output of up to 736 kilograms of rice in just one Mu (which is equal to 0.066667 hectares) of land.
However, many doubted if the lab result could be duplicated in the natural environment where the quality of soils could not be controlled. As photos showing green hills turning into barren lands spread on Chinese social media platforms, criticism followed. One Weibo post said:
On the one hand, so much arable land is abandoned across the country; on the other hand, fields are being moved up the hillside. Upland rice has a few issues; first, it can result in soil erosion and landslides. Second, lack of water supply on the hill. Farmers have to rely on the rain for their rice plantation. It is too expensive to add irrigation systems uphill. Third, the output would be affected by wild birds and animals. Four, the terraced fields are difficult to maintain. Ploughing the land and harvesting the crops takes a huge labour force. The cost of mechanisation can’t be covered.
Planting grain in eco-parks
The farmland policy hasn’t only affected rural areas. Since the Chinese government is also aware that arable lands have been appropriated for other purposes, including eco-parks in cities, local governments are pressured to either convert the parks to farmland or plant grain in the green spaces.
In Chengdu, a 100-kilometer-long green belt that connects 120 parks within the city will be converted into around 100,000 mu or 6700 hectares of farmlands. As the green belt cost the Chengdu government 34.1 billion yuan (approximately USD 5 billion), residents found the decision unbelievable. One widely circulated comment said:
It cost 34.1 billion yuan to build the green belt. How much rice output can cover this cost? I searched the internet and found that the annual profit generated from one mu of rice field was around 770 yuan… 100,000 mu of land can generate 77 million yuan a year. It will take 442.8 years to cover the cost of the green belt.
China is also facing a shortage of agriculture workers, which is being exacerbated by the new policy. Although China has about 450 million farmers, more than 290 million are rural migrant workers working in urban areas; in reality, there are fewer than 150 million available farmers. One Weibo user pointed out:
How much output will “returning forest into farmland” and converting parks in urban areas into grain fields generate? … The key is no one will take care of the land. Even in rural areas, much of the arable land has been abandoned and turned into wasteland… Unless the profit of grain production is lifted to the level that young people are willing to return to rural regions, the plan won’t work.
Meanwhile, China has established rural management organizations to enforce the execution of the 2023 spring planting target. Some are worried that the government will eventually restore the practice of collective farming to address the farmer shortage problem. Last year, China revived grassroots supply and market cooperatives, a method created in the 1950s to support collective farming and strengthen rural governance.
The world is indeed experiencing a food crisis as the COVID-19 pandemic and the conflict in Eastern Europe have driven food prices to a record-high level. However, according to the country’s official statistics, China’s grain output and reserves are far from being insecure. Many believe the sudden policy shift is a response to the geopolitical tension. But it seems that before external threats emerge, rural China will endure another profound revolution.