Beijing Is Restoring China’s Farmlands to Prevent Food Shortages Amid Russia-Ukraine War

News AnalysisThe Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is pushing local authorities to reconvert fishponds and orchards back to arable land in order to increase farmland and mitigate a food crisis. However, this move has threatened the livelihood of locals, with some claiming that they were not fully compensated for their losses. Some experts warn that the Russia-Ukraine War could be triggering a global food crisis because both countries are the world’s major exporters of essential foods such as wheat and corn. China estimates that to remain self-sufficient in food, it must have access to at least 300 million acres of arable land, according to a February report by state-run media Economic Daily. Instead of preserving this amount of land for farming, the CCP had converted most of it for fishing, landscaping, buildings, and other lucrative projects over the years. But recently, the CCP decided to reconvert some of the lands back to farming to avert potential food shortages. To ensure that local officials follow the orders, their performance evaluations are linked to the amount of land they can convert for farming. The CCP is visually monitoring their progress via satellite images. Under such pressure, some local authorities have reportedly drained fishponds and razed forests, threatening the livelihood of residents. Locals Suffer While these actions may be warranted, not all residents are pleased with the CCP’s flip-flopping on land-use policies. Farmworkers pick tea leaves at a tea plantation in the outskirts of Chongqing Municipality, China, on March 9, 2007. (China Photos/Getty Images) The CCP policy allows individuals to privately own structures but not the land. For a fee, people can acquire land-use rights for state-owned and collective lands in rural and suburban areas for a set period. They can also improve the property for farming or other purposes, and most of them obtain the funds through loans. However, land users risk losing their investments if the authorities decide to reconvert the land without reimbursing all the expenses. In Henan Province, a land user surnamed Wang recently told The Epoch Times: “There was a big fishpond in our area that many people had invested all their money in. But the government expropriated the land and filled the pond, destroying [the livelihood of] those families. People borrowed millions for this project and then lost everything overnight. The government’s land-use policy frequently changes that it causes ordinary people to suffer.” Moreover, Wang said that “only a symbolic or token reimbursement for the land was provided, and there was no room to negotiate with the government. The people at the bottom—who have no power, no connections, and no money—are miserable.” A similar experience was reported by a resident surnamed Zhang in Suqian city, Jiangsu Province. He told the publication the local authorities said that it had become necessary to restore as much farmland as possible. As a result, all the crab ponds, shrimp ponds, fishponds, and lotus ponds near the Luoma Lake area were filled in. Similar actions were imposed on a family in Heilongjiang Province. After the head of the household, surnamed Chen, was provided a token reimbursement, his fish and shrimp ponds were seized and filled in for farming purposes. Authorities Warn About Food Crisis During an interview with China Central Television’s “Face-to-Face” program in 2019, Yuan Longping, a highly respected rice expert, warned the public about an imminent food crisis. “China lacks sufficient food and has to import it. Soybeans are imported at about 70 to 80 million tons per year. Now, the country still has money to buy food. But if there is no food sold to us one day, then there will be trouble, and people will starve. This is a big problem,” he said. During a 2020 press conference held by China’s State Council, Wang Guanghua, vice-minister of the Ministry of Land and Resources, said the use of permanent arable farmland for fish farming, forestry, and fruit harvesting, including the planting of seedlings, turf, and other decorative vegetation, should be prohibited. According to Wang, the CCP uses 10 million satellites to monitor how swiftly China’s farmlands are being reconverted and cultivated. The CCP also plans to conduct unannounced inspections and step up efforts to investigate and deal with uncooperative land users. Beijing Faces Problems Despite the CCP’s aggressive efforts to restore China’s arable land, there are three hurdles. First, attracting and retaining large-scale grain farmers isn’t easy since it is not a lucrative job. A survey conducted in 2021 by the China Village Economy Group of Nanjing Forestry University found the average net income of large-scale grain farmers was only $32 per acre. An elderly Chinese farmer stands outside her home on farmland backdropped by a new housing development outside Beijing, China, on Nov. 21, 2014. (Kevin Frayer/Getty Images) Second, a large p

Beijing Is Restoring China’s Farmlands to Prevent Food Shortages Amid Russia-Ukraine War

News Analysis

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is pushing local authorities to reconvert fishponds and orchards back to arable land in order to increase farmland and mitigate a food crisis. However, this move has threatened the livelihood of locals, with some claiming that they were not fully compensated for their losses.

Some experts warn that the Russia-Ukraine War could be triggering a global food crisis because both countries are the world’s major exporters of essential foods such as wheat and corn.

China estimates that to remain self-sufficient in food, it must have access to at least 300 million acres of arable land, according to a February report by state-run media Economic Daily.

Instead of preserving this amount of land for farming, the CCP had converted most of it for fishing, landscaping, buildings, and other lucrative projects over the years. But recently, the CCP decided to reconvert some of the lands back to farming to avert potential food shortages.

To ensure that local officials follow the orders, their performance evaluations are linked to the amount of land they can convert for farming. The CCP is visually monitoring their progress via satellite images. Under such pressure, some local authorities have reportedly drained fishponds and razed forests, threatening the livelihood of residents.

Locals Suffer

While these actions may be warranted, not all residents are pleased with the CCP’s flip-flopping on land-use policies.

Epoch Times Photo
Farmworkers pick tea leaves at a tea plantation in the outskirts of Chongqing Municipality, China, on March 9, 2007. (China Photos/Getty Images)

The CCP policy allows individuals to privately own structures but not the land. For a fee, people can acquire land-use rights for state-owned and collective lands in rural and suburban areas for a set period. They can also improve the property for farming or other purposes, and most of them obtain the funds through loans. However, land users risk losing their investments if the authorities decide to reconvert the land without reimbursing all the expenses.

In Henan Province, a land user surnamed Wang recently told The Epoch Times: “There was a big fishpond in our area that many people had invested all their money in. But the government expropriated the land and filled the pond, destroying [the livelihood of] those families. People borrowed millions for this project and then lost everything overnight. The government’s land-use policy frequently changes that it causes ordinary people to suffer.”

Moreover, Wang said that “only a symbolic or token reimbursement for the land was provided, and there was no room to negotiate with the government. The people at the bottom—who have no power, no connections, and no money—are miserable.”

A similar experience was reported by a resident surnamed Zhang in Suqian city, Jiangsu Province. He told the publication the local authorities said that it had become necessary to restore as much farmland as possible. As a result, all the crab ponds, shrimp ponds, fishponds, and lotus ponds near the Luoma Lake area were filled in.

Similar actions were imposed on a family in Heilongjiang Province. After the head of the household, surnamed Chen, was provided a token reimbursement, his fish and shrimp ponds were seized and filled in for farming purposes.

Authorities Warn About Food Crisis

During an interview with China Central Television’s “Face-to-Face” program in 2019, Yuan Longping, a highly respected rice expert, warned the public about an imminent food crisis.

“China lacks sufficient food and has to import it. Soybeans are imported at about 70 to 80 million tons per year. Now, the country still has money to buy food. But if there is no food sold to us one day, then there will be trouble, and people will starve. This is a big problem,” he said.

During a 2020 press conference held by China’s State Council, Wang Guanghua, vice-minister of the Ministry of Land and Resources, said the use of permanent arable farmland for fish farming, forestry, and fruit harvesting, including the planting of seedlings, turf, and other decorative vegetation, should be prohibited.

According to Wang, the CCP uses 10 million satellites to monitor how swiftly China’s farmlands are being reconverted and cultivated. The CCP also plans to conduct unannounced inspections and step up efforts to investigate and deal with uncooperative land users.

Beijing Faces Problems

Despite the CCP’s aggressive efforts to restore China’s arable land, there are three hurdles.

First, attracting and retaining large-scale grain farmers isn’t easy since it is not a lucrative job. A survey conducted in 2021 by the China Village Economy Group of Nanjing Forestry University found the average net income of large-scale grain farmers was only $32 per acre.

An elderly Chinese farmer stands outside her home on farmland backdropped by a new housing development outside Beijing on Nov. 21, 2014. (Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)
An elderly Chinese farmer stands outside her home on farmland backdropped by a new housing development outside Beijing, China, on Nov. 21, 2014. (Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)

Second, a large portion of China’s arable land is not being cultivated. Satellite data released in February by state-run media Economic Daily found that China was using only 70 percent of its arable land for food production.

Under the CCP’s land policy, much of China’s prime arable land had been transferred out of the hands of farmers and repurposed for industrial use and “non-food” farming. These include forestry, fruit orchards, tea, and herbs, among other things. As a result, migrant workers and farmers were forced to leave these areas to seek work in nearby urban areas.

A report released last August by China’s Third National Land Survey (Third NL Survey) confirmed that 18.5 million acres of arable land had been converted to forests and 10.4 million acres to landscaping from 2009 to 2019.

Third, the massive land conversion efforts have damaged much of the soil, making it unsuitable for farming.

During a press conference held last September, CCP officials acknowledged the soil damages caused by the prior land conversion efforts.

According to Wu Hongyao, one of the top officials of the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs, some of China’s arable land had been converted to fruit, tea, and Chinese herbs, and their arable layer had been damaged.

Wu said the land needs to be fertilized and improved before it could be used for food production; some land planted with seedlings and turf had been severely damaged by transplanting and soil extraction. In particular, poplar and eucalyptus trees with deep root systems consume nutrients and damage the soil structure, making it difficult to grow food again.

The deagriculturalization of arable land is also a serious problem in China, and the primary driver behind it is the land economy of the CCP’s local governments.

According to the Third NL Surveys, China has 87 million acres of urban, rural, and industrial land, of which 54 million acres, or 62 percent, are used for village construction.

In response to an agreement between the CCP Central Committee and local governments to reform the tax-sharing system in 1985, the local governments actively promoted industrialization and urbanization and carried out infrastructure construction. It led to the seizure of a large amount of arable land since the 1990s. About 101 million acres of land was used for construction in 2019, an increase of 21 million acres, or 26.5 percent, compared with 2009.

Consistent with the survey results, government statistics from last year showed that from 2009 to 2019, China’s arable land had shrunk by nearly 18.6 million acres. And the rate of the disappearance of arable land has been accelerating. The average annual net reduction of arable land was over 1 million acres between 1957 and 1996. It increased to over 1.6 million acres between 1996 and 2008, and went above 1.8 million acres from 2009 to 2019.

Analysts now warn that if China’s arable land continues to shrink at existing rates, in 10 years, the country will fall below the minimum 300 million acres required to ensure food security.

Moreover, Beijing’s customs data confirms that China’s food imports have steadily risen from 39 million tons in 2008 to over 164 million tons in 2021.

According to one China observer, Zhuge Mingyang, the CCP is responsible for industrializing China’s arable land and is now responsible for restoring it to farmland. In the meantime, China’s land users and migrant workers must suffer the consequences of the CCP’s inconsistent land-use policies.


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Anne Zhang is a writer for The Epoch Times with a focus on China-related topics. She began writing for the Chinese-language edition in 2014.


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Ellen Wan has worked for the Japanese edition of The Epoch Times since 2007.