Tag Archives: Farming

The Plight of the Chinese Farmer

It's not all sunshine and rainbows in the People's Republic.

China is one of the countries most on the minds of people these days. As a rising power in the modern world, it commands a certain amount of respect and attention due to its status as a very rapidly developing nation. Many Westerners see China as a mighty new engine of industrial might and technological advancement, a strong and fresh new player on the stage of global politics.

China has spent years of effort combined with billions and billions of dollars to give itself a very polished, modern appearance to the rest of the world. Events like the 2008 Beijing Olympics and the 2010 World Expo in Shanghai cost billions of dollars to put on (40 billion and 48 billion, respectively), a huge (and actually record-breaking) and grandiose expenditure of epic proportions, especially considering the economic state of the rest of the country.

You see, while China may portray itself as a gleaming new world power and a rising giant in the global market, the truth is that much of this economic strength is held up by people in devastating poverty, economically and socially. In a way, China has two sides. One side is the urban, modern, rapidly developing side that China shows to the rest of the world, the side that funnels billions into the development of elaborate new ways to show the world how great China is. The other side is the rural, impoverished, beleaguered side, the one made up of farmers with no upward mobility, marked by discontent, corruption, and graft.

I know many Chinese international students at my university, and I’ve spoken to a number of them about the state that China is in right now. Many see their own country as a corrupt place, where the prime force behind most people’s actions (particularly those of the government) is money and most people act selfishly out of a survivalist streak going back hundreds of years. I’m not saying that China is a universally corrupt country, and neither are my Chinese friends. I would, however, be so bold as to say that China is a country full of terrible class divisions and outright oppressive government tactics.

A perfect picture of the stark dichotomy between rich and poor,¬†privileged¬†and powerless, is that of the Chinese farmer and his boss. There is a substantial wealth gap in China, particularly between those who work on farms in rural areas and those who work in an urban setting. In fact, workers in cities earn about three times as much as those in the country. A report published in 2006 by the World Bank found that about 8% of China’s population lived on less than a dollar day, and most of these people lived in the countryside.

To make matters worse, the Chinese government has done little to address these issues. While they recently lifted ancient taxes on farmers, the benefit has not been enough to promise farmers security. Almost all farmers in China find themselves at the mercy of fluctuating markets and environmental disasters, with no income buffer to protect them from hard times. In fact, few farmers have any power over the value of their crop. Farmers typically sell their goods through a “boss,” who will buy the goods from them and resell them; a middle man, so to speak. The problem here is that these bosses are usually unconcerned about the wellbeing of the farmers, and often give them almost no money for their crop relative to the amount they sell the crops for.

(Most of these stats were gathered from here)

Naturally, there’s a lot of resentment and inequality here. Many of the Chinese people would like something to change, and most Chinese farmers would love for the government to make their lives a little easier. But rather than subsidize farmers, order a scrutiny of farmers’ “bosses,” or simply provide farmers with more advanced equipment, the government has chosen to build colossal monuments to Chinese dominance with their money. And due to China’s repression of free speech, and the lack of a legal safety net to rely on for protection from embezzlement by bosses, it seems the Chinese farmers will be trapped in poverty and silence for years to come.

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Using Our Water Responsibly

What could be more crucial?

Water. It’s one of the most basic compounds known to humanity, and also one of the most necessary for the survival of nearly every form of life. It powers not only our individual bodies, but provides insulation for the planet, energy for our civilizations, and food for people, both indirectly and directly. Simply put, no other substance could be more basic, universal, or important for our survival than water.

So why is it used so irresponsibly? Many people have yet to realize it, but our societies, especially those of very developed or developing countries, use or pollute colossal amounts of water, even in the simplest day-to-day activities. The real problem I want to focus on though is the area of life in which the modern world uses water most freely (and oftentimes, irresponsibly): agriculture.

Now, I’m not going to try and argue that the world as a whole needs to cut back on agricultural development. Of course this is good and necessary, especially in our modern technological society. But there are many practices in this crucial field that can help reduce the titanic amounts of water we pour into it.

But first, how much are we really using for these things? Here are a few examples: A pound of corn requires about 108 gallons of water to grow. The same amount of cotton uses 713 gallons, cheese uses 600, and a pound of beef takes 1,799 gallons of water. Now, there is the argument that all these figures exist in a vacuum (that is, they seem like significant numbers, but there’s little to compare them to in order to put them in perspective), and this is somewhat true. Perhaps comparing this to the amount of freshwater remaining for us will help.

The main source for American agriculture (which is centered in the Midwest) is a huge underground “sponge” of rock called the Ogallala aquifer. This aquifer supplies around a third of America’s farming, with around 14 billion gallons of water withdrawn yearly for farming and another 330 gallons or so taken out for other purposes. At this rate, it’s estimated that we’ll have drained this aquifer down to nothing with 190 years or less. Some estimates even hold that the US will face severe water shortage issues with 50 years. The Ogallala aquifer isn’t refilling either. It’s filled with what is sometimes called “fossil water,” meaning that the water was deposited there millions and millions of years ago and is hardly being replenished at all.

So what to do? The biggest problem facing modern agriculture is that it has become tied to a hugely outdated system of ideas that were established in the 19th century Industrial Revolution. Many good things came of this development, and the economic strength and stability of agriculture was vastly improved, but all of this came at a high cost to the environment in the form of ecological destruction and use of huge quantities of natural resources. While we may have had an excuse during the Revolution for the new pollution and contamination, we’re no longer blameless. It’s crucial that agriculture, especially in the developed and developing worlds, is responsible and efficient. We can do this by watching how much water is used in irrigation, what kind of irrigation we use, restriction of pesticide use, and so many other innovations. The time to seize the future of our water supply is now. Time is short.

Note: A great resource to use if you’re hoping to understand the water crisis better and get a better grasp on how much water we use is the National Geographic Freshwater webpage, which is where these statistics came from. Also, if you can get your hands on the April 2010 issue of that same magazine, it’s a special edition on the water crisis and a fantastic set of articles. Some books I would recommend are Blue Planet Run and Water Consciousness, both of which offer a lot of insight into this subject (and BPR has a lot of fantastic pictures too!).

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