An Indian bureaucrat is amazed by China’s ability to grow crops without soil

This is the future.
This is the future.
Image: Reuters/Kim Kyung-Hoon
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For over three years, IAS officer Sumita Dawra was posted at the Indian mission in Beijing. During this period Dawra got to observe several aspects of the Chinese economy and society. The following is an excerpt from a book she wrote based on those observations.

Being curious about the agricultural system in China, I got my first insight into it over lunch with a senior UN officer and her Chinese husband. The Beijing-based officer had recently been to a horticulture exhibition, and was explaining to me how the Chinese would soon be growing vegetables in multi-storeyed high-rises, using only water and nutrients running across the floors through pipes. In view of China’s fast urbanization, this would be an important way of growing horticulture crops, she prophesied.

The knowledge seemed some kind of science fiction to me. How was it possible to grow crops without soil? And, in high-rise buildings in urban areas! Nonetheless, I was curious and knew she was neither imagining nor exaggerating the matter.

A few months later, in June 2012, I found myself in an agriculture zone in South China, on the outskirts of the provincial capital of Yunnan, called Kunming. A visit to an agricultural company in the zone brought me face to face with a concept called hydroponics—the science of growing crops using only water and nutrients and no soil.

I had read elsewhere that soil merely acted as a ‘mineral nutrient reservoir’ for plants, and as long as they get the nutrients through water, soil may actually not be needed to grow plants. This challenged my traditional wisdom. All doubts were soon laid to rest, however, as we entered the shed, sunlight filtering in through the opaque roof, plants growing merely with water and nutrients supplied through narrow black pipes.

Small plants were held in place with bits of sponge on vertically placed sheets of foam, surviving on nutrients supplied to their roots through water sprinklers on the other side. Likewise, rows of cherry tomato plants grew in open trays that had small tubes feeding the roots. Something akin to intravenous feeding, I found myself thinking. As I pottered around, agog with further curiosity, but constrained by lack of command over the local language, and relying on the assistance of the interpreter to understand the details, I was further surprised to see multiple pumpkins growing in a series of single pots, defying the principle of diminishing returns.

In my undergraduate classes I had learnt that if the law of diminishing returns did not apply, it would be possible to grow food for the whole world in a pot. And here I was privy to multiple numbers of pumpkins growing in a single pot— not enough for the whole world, but certainly much more than one would expect to see growing in a single pot.

A mini harvest of tomatoes and cucumbers lay in buckets on the floor, next to tables and racks overflowing with plant growth. Clear water channels snaked across the floor, breeding huge gold-fish for supplemental income for the company, as banana plants grew in specially created corners of the sun-washed shed.

Suddenly, the concept of growing vegetables and fruits in high-rise buildings, to feed cities of a fast urbanizing China, fell into place.

Shrinking Arable Land and Water Stress

With a population of 1.37 billion, China is both the largest producer and consumer of agricultural products. However, though China has four times the landmass of India, its arable land is less than that of India, its neighbor and the next most populous nation in the world.

With arable land in China at 2.03 billion mu or 135.4 million hectares (2012), and ‘growing demands of population, urbanization and pollution eroding arable land and threatening food security for the country’, the Chinese government had fixed a ‘bottom line’ for arable land, i.e., a red-line below which it could not let arable land availability fall in the country.

Present availability showed arable land in the country was still 227 million mu above the ‘bottom line’ fixed to ensure food security. Given the pressures on land, the country is, however, understandably anxious to safeguard its resource of cultivable land.

The farmland in China has been shrinking annually on account of demands of development, urbanization and pollution of soil and water, making tracts of land toxic for cultivation. About 2 per cent of the country’s arable land is estimated to be too polluted for cultivation on account of heavy metal and other waste.

Besides, there is stress on water resources and China seeks to divert water from areas of water-surplus to regions of scarcity. The ambitious South North Water Diversion (SNWD) Project is underway, connecting surplus flows of the Yangtze River in the south to the parched Yellow river in the north, irrigating agricultural areas on the way.

Stress on arable land and water has turned China into a net importer of grains in the past few years. Not to mention the challenge the country faces with respect to availability of agricultural labour, as able-bodied rural people continue to migrate to urban areas for jobs in factories, leaving behind old parents, children and women to manage agricultural holdings.

Who Owns the Land the Chinese Farmer Tills?

A big question in my mind as I toured the agricultural lands in Shandong Province was: who owned agricultural land in communist China? As I asked this question to different people, in different provinces over a period of time, I received varied answers.

The answers, however, agreed around the concept of community ownership of land, with an arrangement for lease-back to the farmer and his family. I read ‘Land to the tiller’, which has been the slogan of farmers in China for much of the twentieth century, continues to be so till present times.

When the Communist Party of China came to power in 1949, it redistributed land to farmers from the landlords. Later, by 1956 agriculture had been organized into government controlled collective farming, which soon became communes that banned private production, leaving farmers under severe pressure to grow and contribute to the state, as per predetermined quotas.

However, the country liberalized agriculture after it started its market-oriented reforms in 1978, and households were allotted farms for cultivation which they were free to use as they liked, after meeting the condition of set quotas. Greater liberalization followed, and by early 1990s, the government had abolished the quota system and farmers could sell most of their annual produce in the market.

The incentive to sell surplus agricultural produce at market prices and earn profits was a big change, and a catalyst for further growth. Consequently, the production of commercial crops like sugarcane, oil-bearing crops, horticultural produce increased manifold from 1978 onwards, besides the output of grains, meat and aquatic products.

‘China today supports almost 20 percent of the world’s population on about 10 percent of the world’s arable land,’ is an oft quoted statistic in the context of China’s markets having encouraged agricultural production and productivity.

Today, the Chinese farmer still does not own the land he tills, which continues to belong to the village community (collective ownership), permitting the farmer to merely enter into a lease to use the land. The area for lease depends on total land availability in the village, and the need of the farmer’s family, to put it simply. The lease renewals are granted to the farmer for defined periods of time, and though the farmer is deemed to have property rights, being part of the collective village community, the farmer can neither sell the land leased to him, nor mortgage it for credit.

Demands of development and a rapidly growing urbanization fed an explosion of demand for land. As the pressure on land increased, the local governments sold land either to the real estate developers or for industrial use, earning necessary revenues to fill the local state coffers in the process.

Over the years, land sales became an important source of revenue for the local governments to fulfill their responsibilities, and in 2011 they contributed to 63.7 percent of the local government fiscal revenue, compared to 9.19 per cent in 1999. This also brought in a vested interest of the local governments to retain land ownership, pushing the need for land reforms and the consequent issue of land ownership for farmers further down the road.

Meanwhile, forcible land acquisitions left the farmer deprived of his occupation, decreased cropped areas, and encouraged land use for the real estate that had already become a bubble due to surplus inventories. This also led to many land related protests by farmers, which has become a reason for social unrest in the country.

The earliest incident was reported from the north-eastern Heilongjiang Province in December 2007, and as the protests became more common in the countryside, China mulled over a law to protect farmers against local officers ‘requisitioning’ their land and increasing their compensation in case land was acquired in public interest.

Further, in November 2013, at the time of all important third plenary meeting of the Communist Party of China, it was announced that farmers would be given more land rights and would be able to enjoy a greater share of property appreciation.

This was deemed to be an official acknowledgement of the debate raging over reforms needed to privatize rural agricultural lands in favour of individual tillers, and the problem of social unrest a lack of it had created for the country, as local government bodies many times expropriated rural lands for specious development purposes, denying adequate land compensation to the farmer.

Excerpted with permission from Bloomsbury India from the book China: Behind the Miracle by Sumita Dawra.