Paper: Improving Agricultural Production

Three authors – Hu Xiaoping (胡小平), Zhu Ying (朱 颖), and Ge Dangqiao (葛党桥) -, addressed the problems of low efficiency in agricultural production. .

Not only “surplus labor”, but workforce who would actually be needed in the countryside, too, have left China’s rural areas in the wake of reform and industrial development and urbanization, according to their paper, published by Guangming Daily (光明日报), and republished by China National Radio (CNR). The author found that labor shortage in agriculture and an aging workforce were problems that went hand in hand. That the workforce was becoming of age had also led to a situation where “the workers’ quality” (导致了从事农业生产的劳动者质量的下降) was deteriorating.

After stating the obvious – that it is mostly younger people who move into rural  [correction (20120308): urban] areas, and that the elderly tend to stay at home -, the article adds:

In our country, there are big gaps between the countryside and the cities, in terms of the economy, culture, public services, social welfare, etc.. To enjoy their share in the fruits of modern civilization and to pursue good opportunities of development, even though they won’t achieve the levels of income they hoped for there, the younger will still wish to move towards the cities. Once they are there, they won’t return to the countryside, unless they absolutely have to. In the cities, they are raising the second generation of migrant workers, and while they remain rural population in terms of household registration, these have never worked in agricultural fields, and will feel no desire to return to the countryside.

在我国,农村和城市在经济、文化、公共事业、社会福利等方面存在较大差距。为了分享现代文明成果和追求更好的发展机会,即使在城市中无法获得预期收入,农 村大量青壮年劳动力也会源源不断向城市转移。进城以后,他们除非迫不得已,都不会再回到农村。他们在城市养育起来的“农二代”,虽然在户籍意义上仍属于农 民,却从未从事过农业生产,今后也不愿回到农村。

Urban industries demand high skills, argues the article, and competition had driven many of those who left for the cities since the 1980s back into the countryside – but the next young generation was on its way into the cities again.

But age alone didn’t explain the low efficiency in agriculture, as a look at the situation in developed countries’ agricultural sectors showed. High prices on their produce, combined with state subsidies, agricultural efficiency wasn’t low in Europe, the United States or Japan, despite a rural population which had come of age there, too.

A survey in the U.S. in 2007 found that the average age of a farm owner there was 57.1 years, in Japan, in 2009, 61 per cent of those who worked in the agricultural sector were older than 65. This doesn’t explain why the agricultural sector’s efficiency should be comparatively low. Abroad, an aging population is no threat to agricultural production, because they have sound social services and a comparatively high level of mechanization there, which offsets labor shortages.

2007年,美国农业普查结果显示,美国农场主的平均年龄已上升到57.1岁;在日本,2009年农业从业者中65岁以上的人员所占比例为61%。这都不是农业生产比较效益低能够解释的。国外农业劳动力老龄化之所以没有威胁到农业生产,是因为他们有完善的农业社会化服务体系以及较高的农业机械化水平,弥补了农业劳动力的短缺。

The central government had intensified its efforts since 2004, writes the author, with some positive effects on efficiency in the agricultural sector, but not to a degree which would have avoided labor shortages, or migration of the young into the urban areas.

Rather extensive management of arable land was one reason for the shortcomings. Land had been left barren. The older farmers preferred land close to their homes, and abandoned more distant arable land. And where two harvests per year had been the rule before, the frequency had gone down to only one harvest a year. Frequently, they only grew food for their own needs. The central government had defined a red line of 1.8 billion mu of arable land to be kept in use, and the extensive use of arable land was in conflict with that requirement.

Attracting skilled work was another problem. Dual structures of rural and urban environments kept potentially skilled workers in rural urban areas. Modern agriculture required technical and management understanding, mechanical skills, which the existing population with rather low educational levels could hardly provide. The phenomenon that many rural citizens moved to the cities temporarily and kept their land as a lifeline didn’t help to make agricultural use of the land more efficient, either. Each of them kept small fields which left no option to achieve economies of scale.

A third problem – and one people in the cities are only too familiar with, would be rising food prices, given that the supplies were rather inefficient. Even though the share of agricultural products in the consumer price index (CPI) had fallen from 60 per cent in the 1980s, to about 30 per cent in 2011, 60 per cent of this years CPI rise were caused by food prices. Under normal circumstances, one should expect that demand for agricultural products would only rise slowly, and expect little volatility, but the fast price rises suggested that there were serious supply shortages. Rises in pig (or pork) prices would suggest that supply would rise quickly, but older farmers were often neither prepared nor unable to raise pigs.  Here, labor shortage was causing the problem.

The paper (or the Guangming Daily article reflecting it)  makes three proposals:

Firstly, train professional farmers. Focus on attracting highly qualified staff into agricultural production, intensify farmers’ education, and create a beneficial environment for rural talents.
其一,培育职业农民。应着力吸引高素质人才从事农业生产,加大对农民培训的力度,营造留住农村人才的有利环境。

Secondly, improve agricultural mechanization. Encourage and support research and development that leads to mechanical solutions in line with the needs of agricultural production, increase the level of mechanization, and decrease the dependence of agricultural production on human labor. Continue to improve and enhance state subsidies for the purchase of agricultural machinery.

其二,提高农业机械化程度。鼓励和支持相关科研机构研发符合农业生产需求的机械设备,提高我国农业生产的机械化程度,降低农业生产对人工的依赖程度。继续完善和提高国家的农机具购置补贴。

Thirdly, strengthen the building and investment in rural social services. Build and perfect social services to be provided before, during and after production [apparently kindergartens and pensioner facilities], accelerate agricultural production, the diffusion of agricultural technology, agricultural information systems, agricultural finance and insurance systems, and reduce the difficulties and risks farmers are facing.

其三,加强对农业社会化服务体系的建设和投入。建立和完善对农业生产提供产前、产中、产后的社会化服务体系,加快在农业生产、农业技术推广、农业信息、农业金融和保险等领域的服务体系建设,减轻农民的务农难度,增强农业抵御风险的能力。

Fourthly, change organizational and management methods in agricultural production. Change the traditional decentralized patterns of agricultural production, encourage the formation of professional guilds, cooperatives, specialized organizations and other forms of specialized economic cooperation, and increase the organizational levels in production. Encourage and support conditions which allow the achievement of appropriate economies of scale, based on reliable foundations of contract household responsibility systems.

其四,改变农业生产的组织经营方式。改变传统的分散经营的农业生产模式,鼓励农民建立专业协会、股份合作社、专业合作社等不同形式的专业合作经济组织,提 高农业生产组织化和产业化程度。支持和鼓励条件允许的地区,在稳定家庭联产承包责任制的基础上推进土地流转,进行农业适度规模经营。

The paper touches upon many related issues in economic, social, and ideological fields which are fairly frequently recorded on this blog. It also reflects existing confines of long-term and more recent restrictions on reform. I will try to build some links between these issues and this blogpost during Christmas.

Published without spell-checks or other corrections.

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4 Responses to “Paper: Improving Agricultural Production”

  1. It’s an interesting piece. When one cuts throughout the “do more everything” type rhetoric, what exactly is being proposed other than further urbanization and a lessening of farmers reliance on the land as social security? I’m also wondering what it means to pursue a less labour intensive agriculture that remains based on “reliable foundations of contract household responsibility systems.”

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  2. Yes, it is a rather detailed account about the “countryside”, which doesn’t seem to be typical for the Chinese press. I’ve probably read more papers from international researchers, or heard overseas Chinese scientist comment on such issues, than from China itself. The Economist also had some articles about farming in China a few years ago – including scientific advice, but that has abated since.

    China National Radio seems to provide more programs for a specifically rural area than other media than other stations or papers, but mostly on the airwaves, not online, and if those programs are useful (lots of lessons about cultivation and mechanization) is something I’m not trying to judge. Generally, the urbanites treat the rural population with contempt, and this paper seems to mirror that, even if comparatively mildly.

    I’m not expanding this to other related fields yet, because I’d like to encourage some speculation. Basing organizational and technical progress on “reliable foundations of contract household responsibility systems”, too, is probably as much about what the party will not tolerate, as it is about what they want to happen.

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