Visitors to China’s cities might be excused for thinking that the demographic is skewed towards the young. Smart, young men in upmarket European cars, super fashion-conscious women in the malls and large groups of children going back and forth to school all point to a dominance of the under 35s. But nationally, this is an aging population with a majority of the 50s+ generation still living in rural areas. In fact, this older generation makes up most of the farmers responsible for growing China’s food. Where we have been working in Anhui Province, eastern China, our survey of farmers in one county reveals that the modal age of farmers is 60-64 with the oldest 81 years: less that 20% are in their 20s and 30s. With only 10% continuing into their 70s, it seems likely that the next 10 years may see this bulge in the farming demographic moving out of farming. It’s less clear as to who will take their place.
The main reason for this state of affairs is the massive shift of mainly youthful labour from rural to urban areas where incomes are higher. In fact, on average nearly 80% of the incomes of the farming families in our survey come from non-agricultural activities – some focus on farm diversification but they mainly rely on income from other jobs in local towns and remittances from migrant members of the family. Over 90% of the farmers had a family member working in a town. Since 2004, government subsidies have helped to raise farm incomes but the 80 RMB/month our farmers receive on average from this stream hardly compares with the 1000 RMB/month that could be earned in a low-income city job, like waitressing. Small-scale farming in China today is not financially viable without several income sources.
Perhaps the city young will takeover the farms? Young people in China have a great fondness for their rural roots: witness the travel chaos during the national holidays as families gravitate back to the home village. But ask the same youngsters (in my case university students) about taking over the farm, and you will find that they are not so keen.
What about renting out the land? One new scheme allows farmers to rent their land to ‘private’ companies who will take on the work and possible bring more efficient mechanisation to rice planting etc. But unless efficiency gains are significant, how will they attract employees when profits, and presumably wages, are so low?
At the same time, there are multiple growing pressures on China’s ability to feed itself. Actual yields of the staple crops have not been rising over the last few years. Diets are changing towards a preference for less-energy efficient meat. Urbanisation and infrastructural development consume high grade rather than marginal land. Tighter implementation of environmental regulation puts stronger curbs on the worst – and often cheapest- farming practises. And, farmers are increasingly looking for non-staple crops that give a higher profit – as we recently witnessed in the valleys of northern Yunnan where the previous rice paddy landscape is now strung up with line after line of grape vines.
What will actually happen is difficult to predict. Maybe rural farm incomes will increase to attract the younger, more educated worker, or perhaps the government will increase the level of subsidy for key crops. But both these options make food production more costly with impacts on food prices, the cost-of-living for rural and urban communities, and overall inflation. Maybe the situation will be eased as farm practises become more efficient. A recent paper in Nature by Chen Xinping et al (2014) suggests that adoption of integrated soil-crop system management techniques could raise average grain yields by 18-35%. But even these authors note the constraints imposed on efficient farming by the rise in the number of part-time farmers - in part driven by the pull of the expanding cities.
Xinping Chen et al. 2014 Producing more grain with lower environmental costs. Nature 514, 486-489.