Lessons from China’s plate


The Land (Australia)
By Rick Colless
August 31, 2009

STANDING on a gently undulating landscape and gazing across kilometres of fat, fully-filled and turning wheat only a few weeks from harvest, I could have been anywhere in the NSW wheat belt pondering the wealth to be soon harvested and thinking the grower of this fine crop would be well pleased with his efforts.

I was, in fact, inspecting a field-trial site conducted by the Northwest University (Agriculture and Forestry) in Yangling, Shaanxi Province, China.

According to my host, Professor Wang Zhaohui, this crop was expected to yield about the average for this district – about five tonnes a hectare – a good crop by anybody’s standards.

The planting was part of an extensive network of nutrition trials looking at varying rates of nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium and sulphur against different rates of trace elements, similar to much of the work done through the years in Australia.

The trial site covered about two hectares owned by four different farmers.

Average farm size in the Shaanxi Province is about 1000 square metres – a tenth of one hectare.

As soon as the wheat is harvested, maize will be immediately planted and they will expect to harvest 12 to 15t/ha before December, when the area will again be planted to wheat.

These soils are double-cropped every year and the yellow, wind-blown loess soil has been farmed for 5000 years.

Organic matter levels are about 0.5 per cent (similar to many Australian soils that have only been farmed

for 50 to 100 years) and the Chinese farmers have suffered enormous soil erosion problems and fertility decline.

They do not return any of their crop residue to the soil – rather, it is all used for domestic heating and cooking, despite most villages now having electricity.

Returning crop residue to the soil would help moisture infiltration, soil stability and profit.

The Chinese are totally focused on agriculture and food production, from their ministries through to the farmers themselves.

They have highly active and committed research and educational facilities, farm advisory officers (their first farm research and advisory officer was appointed nearly 5000 years ago) and bureaucrats – all committed to continually improving their food production systems.

Their farmers are revered by people in the cities, even though most of them are still low income earners even by Chinese standards.

In contrast, Australians are fast losing sight of food production’s importance.

We have a federal minister, Tony Burke, from Sydney, who has limited understanding of agriculture, and a NSW minister with many portfolios in the now renamed Industry and Investment NSW (including agriculture, energy, mineral resources and State development) – far too many conflicting portfolios to be fully focused on farmers and food production.

We also have a quickly declining research effort, few farm advisory officers left and virtually none in training.

Our agricultural educational facilities are declining at an alarming rate, including the projected sell-off of land at Hurlstone Agricultural High School.

Our bureaucrats are all focused on making the government of the day look good, rather than working for the betterment and improvement of agricultural production.

Our farmers are virtually unknown in our cities and people are losing sight of where their food comes from.

Simply put, China has a unanimous and progressive commitment to agriculture – they know what it is like to be short of food and hungry.

Rick Colless, a NSW Nationals Upper House MP from Inverell, worked as a government soil conservationist from 1971 to 1997


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