Safeguarding small-scale farms in China

Government concern for the agricultural industry in China is seeing a push for big corporate farming despite smallholder farms remaining viable, writes Rebecca Borg

China is a world leader in the agricultural industry, renowned for its ability to harvest an ample mix of crops, grains and meats. It’s agricultural output accounts for 50 percent of the world’s vegetable supply, despite only covering less than 13 percent of the arable land. But with concerns including food safety, an ageing workforce and soil and water pollution, the Chinese Government is calling for small-scale farmers to transfer their land to big corporate farmers in an attempt to modernise the industry.

“Smallholder production is said to be stifled by high inputs, particularly the excessive use of chemical fertilisers and low efficiency, with smallholder farmers deemed unable to adopt agricultural technology or access modern supply chains,” says Dr Brooke Wilmsen, a Senior Lecturer in Anthropology at La Trobe University. “The State Council is focused on what it calls ‘supply side structural reform’ to achieve ‘optimal allocation of agricultural production resources’.”

Dr Wilmsen is a Chief Investigator on a project attempting to gain a deeper understanding into the viability of small-scale farming within China’s agricultural industry. In collaboration with Dr Sarah Rogers, Dr Xiao Han and Professor Christine Wong from the University of Melbourne, Dr Zoe Ju-Han Wang from James Cook University as well as several China-based academics, their study analysed land transfer in apple, tea, orange and coffee-growing areas, with the results discussed in their paper Scaling up agriculture? The dynamics of land transfer in inland China. Their research was funded by an Australian Research Council (ARC) Discovery Project grant administered by the University of Melbourne.

"While larger-scale farming may be perceived as a more efficient way to produce staple crops on plainland where there is already large permanent out-migration, it is not suited for all terrains and crops," says Dr Wilmsen. “Large-scale farming and high value cash crops benefit from uniform production and stronger distribution, but multiple modes of production are important to China’s agriculture.”

Small land holdings also provide farmers with the opportunity to engage in precarious non-farm work, driving China’s construction and manufacturing sectors in urban areas.

“Smallholder farms have long been a defining feature of the Chinese countryside and are important to the localised economy. We could be witnessing the last generation of smallholder farmers in China.”

The research found that only three percent of total landholdings are leased out to agribusinesses, with four of China’s cash-cropping, mountainous sites dominated by smallholders who are well integrated into supply chains. Dr Wilmsen says such findings highlight the ongoing viability of smallholders which is reason enough to conserve them.

“The risk is that without a universal system of social protection in China, the loss of farmland to large agribusiness could produce a new urban underclass of landless farmers,” says Dr Wilmsen. “A strong counter narrative to the notion that smallholder farmers are ‘inefficient’ and ‘backwards’ needs to be established and backed by the government through the enforcement of targeted policies.”