Food and Agriculture in China (Part I)

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Food and Agriculture in China (Part I)

by Michael K. Hansen & Stephen J. Risch

‘Science for the People’ Vol. 11, No. 3, May/June 1979, p. 39–45

The People’s Republic of China has received tremendous publicity during the last six months, and deservedly so. The Chinese have embarked on an extremely ambitious program of modernization of their entire society and they have begun to look more outward as they seek to import advanced, Western technology. There are also signs of important internal developments. These changes have been greeted by the popular Western press with unabashed glee, interpreting the Chinese moves as a signal that once again socialism is foundering and that the Chinese have come looking to the U.S., Japan, and Europe not only for modern technology, but possibly for new relations among the people involved in all aspects of production as well. 

We are very skeptical of this interpretation and would like to present an alternative view, by way of discussing some aspects of agricultural production and food distribution in China. While we have some reservations about certain aspects of recent developments in China, we think that a close inspection of the current food system clearly demonstrates the essential success of the Chinese Revolution in food production and delivery. We further believe that the Chinese are committed to maintaining and building on the basic components of the system that have made it work so well. 

What we would like to do here is to discuss the basic structure of the food system in the People’s Republic of China — how decisions are made about what food to grow and how to grow it, and how the production and distribution processes themselves are organized. We hope that by comparing important aspects of the food system in China with those in the U.S. we can illustrate some of the differences between a society that produces food for profit as opposed to one that produces food to meet the needs of the people. 

Most of the information comes directly from data we obtained on our trip to the PRC last summer, as part of the 12-member delegation of Science for the People. In January, 1978, in response to a proposal submitted to the PRC one year earlier, Science for the People received an invitation from the Science and Technical Association of China to send a delegation to spend one month studying agriculture and food production. During the month of June, the 12 of us traveled from tropical Hainan Island to as far North as Peking, visiting People’s Communes, State Farms, factories, research institutes, and universities, and discussing our many questions with state and local officials. 

China is still an overwhelmingly agricultural society, with approximately 85% of its 900 million people living in the rural areas and directly involved in some sort of agricultural work. Since 1958, the primary unit of rural social organization has been the People’s Commune, composed of an average 15,000 people and comprising what was before the revolution of 1949, the agricultural marketing unit (the agricultural marketing unit was an area within which a large proportion of the agricultural commerce took place). The commune is composed of a collection of brigades (usually about 6 to 17 per commune), and each brigade is composed of production teams (about 12 per brigade). A production team usually comprises the inhabitants of one village (about 150 people), and serves as the principle accounting unit in the sense that the team is responsible for determining wages (via work points) and distributing them to its members. They thus manage the material incentives which help motivate production and innovation. 

Deciding What to Grow 

In China, agricultural production is determined by a State Plan. Although there are general 5-year, 10-year, and 15-year plans which set basic goals to be achieved, the annual plan is the most detailed and crucial one in terms of production. The annual plan is decided upon via an interplay of information and negotiations between the more central and more local levels. 

Even the most local level, the production team, has a very significant input into the plan. In late summer or early fall, after the size of the harvest can be accurately predicted, team leaders hold a series of meetings with brigade leaders to evaluate the harvest information. Based on this information and a knowledge of what grains are needed on a national level, this body decides how much acreage is to be planted to each type of crop in the following year and predicts both the size of total output and consumption needs of the producers. When agreement is reached on these items, the plan is passed up the network (from brigade leaders to commune leaders to county leaders to Provincial leaders to State leaders). On the basis of plans received in this way from all China, the State generates a revised plan whose objective is to ensure that an adequate amount of each type of food is produced at the provincial and State level to meet provincial and national needs, rather than an overproduction of some foods in some areas and an underproduction of others. After the State Plan is finished it is passed down through the channels to the local level, which ultimately decides whether or not the plan will actually be followed. The state, however, can influence the production team’s decision because it controls supplies of such items as fertilizer and large machinery. The actual process of production (how the crops are grown) is left up to the production team. 

In addition to helping make the State Plan, the peasants also have an input into the type of agricultural research that is being done via a recently developed aspect of the science research infrastructure, the four level agro-science network. The main functions of this network are to popularize scientific farming methods and involve peasants in designing and executing research projects. The network consists of a team of agricultural technicians and trained peasants at the county, commune, brigade, and production team level who are engaged in agricultural research, education and popularization. We studied the network in detail in Wu County, Kiangsu Province, where we learned that 80% of the counties in China and approximately 8% of the rural labor force are involved in these networks, which were formally set up in 1972. 

The four levels in the network are county, commune, production brigade and production team. At the county level is an Institute with a research staff of approximately 70, which conducts short term research for immediate needs, plans for long term research, develops new seed strains, popularizes new technology, and helps organize and evaluate the research topics and results of the lower levels. They stress integration of professional technicians with the masses in carrying out research. Associated with the Institute are popularization stations which demonstrate advanced cropping systems as well as conduct experiments. They also train agricultural technicians for the brigade and production team levels. 

At the commune level there are stations which provide seeds for brigade and team research, train agricultural technicians, run experimental plots, and administer the observation posts. These observation posts are located all over the commune; they collect data on weather, crop growth, and pest numbers and send them to the commune station and county Institute where they are integrated and used for better production administration. 

At the brigade level are several teams which develop and provide new seed strains for production teams, instruct team research groups, provide prompt pest information and concrete control measures, and run night courses for popularization of new technological advances. 

At the most local level, the production team, there are groups which provide instructions for field management and coordinate with team members and leaders in running high-yield experimental seed plots for demonstration and further experimentation. Since the establishment of this network, Wu County has changed from growing two crops a year to three crops a year. The network has helped solve many of the problems associated with this transition by means such as introducing higher yielding strains produced by irradiation, haploid culture, and cross-breeding, and controlling the pests in the triple cropping system. The county Institute has introduced 440 strains of rice and 498 strains of wheat by placing them in commune stations for experimentation under different conditions and in different cropping systems. In this way, both the production team and brigade will get the best yielding strains for their particular level. Thus it can be seen that the four level network, which involves 8% of the agricultural labor pool, serves to insure that the peasants themselves have an active input into deciding what type of scientific research is done as well as doing some of it themselves. 

As can be seen, the people who actually grow the food, the peasants, have a significant input into deciding both what is grown and how it will be grown. The situation is very different in the U.S. where most agricultural workers have very little input into these kinds of decisions. For example, the vast majority of people who actually perform agricultural labor are migrant farmworkers who have absolutely no say at all in deciding what to grow or how to grow it. Even the farmers themselves have very little input into the decision-making process as many food items are controlled either directly or via contracting by large corporations such as Tenneco, Castle and Cooke, United Brands, or Del Monte. These large corporations are interested in food production for one reason only: profits. In a free market system, by creating a monopoly (i.e. controlling supply) a company can get higher prices and therefore a higher profit margin on their investment if there is a constant demand for a product, which is true for food. Since most of these companies have vertically integrated food systems whereby they control the transportation, processing, and marketing (predominantly wholesale) of their own products, control over food production means a steady flow of supplies for their vertical systems and a higher profit margin. As of 1970, 22% of the American food supply was produced under vertical integration by corporations.1 The Federal Trade Commission found in 1972 that, as a result of monopoly power in 13 food industries, consumers were overcharged, in the sense that prices were higher than they would have been if the industry was more competitive, by at least $2.1 billion.2

Depending on how you define it, there is monopoly control in 50-80% of all food industries.3 Table 1 lists the amount of control corporations exhibit over production of various food items. Notice the predominance of contract farming, in which a farmer signs a contract agreeing to grow a given amount of produce under a given set of conditions. The American Agricultural Marketing Association has estimated that by 1980 50% of the American food supply will be produced by contracts; by 1985 the figure is predicted to be 75%.4 These contracts explicitly state how much is to be produced, how it will be produced and when it will be delivered. Once a farmer signs one of these contracts s/he has virtually no more control in the production process. 

Take the tomato industry, for example, where large corporations control 95% of all production, primarily via contracts.5 The corporation will often supply the farmer with tomato seedlings grown on the company’s farms in the south, tell her/him how they should be grown, and even send an inspector to supervise the production process (planting and application of herbicides, pesticides, and fertilizers) in order to ensure the production of a product which meets the company’s standards.6 The result of these contracts is a system in which the farmer, for a small fee, allows the corporation to use her/his land to grow crops on except that the farmer is responsible for anything that might go wrong, a system where the farmer is in economic servitude to the large corporation. The farmer, moreover, often has no choice but to sign the contract: refusal on the part of the farmer to cooperate usually results in them having a hard time selling their tomatoes as there are normally only one or two buyers in any area. 

Table 1.


Crop % farmed by Corp. % Corp. Contract Total % Corp. Control Corporate Farmers
fresh vegetables  30 21 51 Tenneco, United Brands 
processed vegetables  10 78 88 Del Monte, Campbell Soup, General Foods
citrus fruits  30 17 47 Coca-Cola, Royal Crown Cola, Tropicana 
chicken (broilers)  7 85 92 Greyhound, Pillsbury, Continental Grain 
SOURCE: Hightower, Jim (1975), Eat Your Heart Out. Random House, Inc., New York, p.200. 

Food Production 

Specific aspects of agricultural production in China, in addition to the decision-making process, contrast sharply with those in the United States. The three general observations that most impressed us were: 1) the extensive use of intercropping in all the agricultural zones we visited, 2) the emphasis placed on organic fertilizers, and 3) widespread use of biological and cultural control of insects. These same observations have been made by other people studying Chinese agriculture as well (see for example the reports of the National Academy of Sciences Insect and Plant Delegations7). 

It is important to point out at the outset that these unusual characteristics of Chinese agriculture do not result from especially sophisticated technology or recently discovered biological principles. The Chinese are not more advanced in these respects than the U.S. The theoretical basis and the technological aspects of agriculture in China are all well understood in the West and have been for some time. As we will see, the reason that the Chinese make especially good use of these production techniques is related in part to their social/economic system — a system which results in a commitment to long-term stable yields with minimal harmful effects on people. 


While traveling from southern Hainan Island to as far North as Peking, we noticed that everywhere we went we frequently saw crops grown in polycultures as opposed to monocultures (polycultures are plots with two more crops planted in them simultaneously). Both agricultural biologists and ecologists have long known that there are frequently important benefits to growing crops in these intercropped arrangements, so that if a  person plants, say, two fields of crops X and Y as a polyculture, the total yield per area will be greater than if one field was planted to crop X and the other to crop Y.8

These benefits result from several considerations. First, growing several crops in a polyculture can make better use of the entire spectrum of resources available (light, soil nutrients, time, etc.). For instance, growing a relatively shade-tolerant crop under a taller crop allows one to fit more plants into a given area and make more complete use of all the available light. Growing crops that require slightly different combinations of nutrients is another example. Secondly, interplanting a low cover crop with other plants can significantly reduce soil erosion, and if the crop is a legume, it can add nitrogen to the soil at the same time. Third, there are often reduced populations of pest insects in polycultures. This occurs because pests have greater difficulty finding host plants in polycultures, tend to emigrate more once they have arrived, or suffer greater predation by insect enemies in the polycultures. 

We observed a great number of polycultures that demonstrated these advantages: peanuts interplanted with pineapple or bean; soybeans interplanted with corn and winter wheat, or corn and a variety of fruit trees; sorghum with beans and fruit trees; squash with corn; sweet potatoes with corn or fruit trees; corn with winter wheat; young rubber trees with vegetables, and others. One temperate system that especially intrigued us was the winter wheat-apple combination. We learned that its development had resulted from peasant experiments aimed at solving several agricultural problems such as the apparent underutilization of land underneath apple trees in orchards and the damage to winter wheat resulting from heavy winds accompanying late spring/early summer storms, just as the wheat is ripening. The peasants discovered that when they grew the two crops together, the apple trees did not seriously shade the wheat since the wheat does most of its growing when the trees do not have all their leaves (fall and spring). Yet the apple trees provided significant protection for the wheat against wind damage, in late spring/early summer. 

A second polyculture system we found instructive was the corn-winter wheat mixture. Winter wheat is sown in the fall in strips approximately 1.5m wide and spaced about 2m apart. In the spring, corn is planted in the bare rows and when the wheat is harvested in late spring, either more corn or soybeans are planted in their place. We asked our hosts if they would have to replace this system with monocultures during their drive to mechanize agriculture (the Chinese hope to mechanize 85% of all the basic agriculture processes by 1985). They replied that they had developed a machine capable of harvesting two meter wide swaths of wheat or corn and that tests showed that the polyculture system could be successfully mechanized, and thus preserved. In discussions with our hosts we learned that some of the polyculture systems would probably be shifted to monocultures to make mechanization more easy while many of the polyculture systems would be preserved, either by developing special machinery or by restricting mechanization to only part of the production process. 

In the U.S., by contrast, there is extremely little intercropping practiced. Large farm machinery manufacturers claim it is not “economically feasible” or that it is technically impossible to develop machinery for working polycultures. Yet one of the most important reasons for the virtual lack of intercropping in the U.S. seems more tied to the increasingly large average farm size. The growth in farm size is itself due to the natural accumulation process which occurs in any capital-intensive sector of a market economy. Farmers with more access to assured financing, high inputs of fertilizers and herbicides, the best seeds, and money in the bank to tide them through difficult periods will show an average profit higher than the smaller farms and eventually they will be able to buy many of them out. As farm size increases, it becomes more profitable to farm the land with the huge machines characteristic of agriculture. And large machines provide an incentive to increase farm size yet further, and so on. Experience in China and other countries has shown that the kind of farm machines best able to work polycultures tend to be smaller than the giant combines we are familiar with. And so with the increase in farm size, these smaller machines become “economically unattractive.” Another factor probably contributing to the above trend is the general incentive to replace human labor with machines. The smaller machines needed for polycultures would probably require more labor input per acre farmed. 

Organic versus Chemical Fertilizers 

A second aspect of the Chinese production process that contrasts sharply with that in the U.S. is their heavy reliance on organic as opposed to chemical fertilizers. It has been estimated that approximately 70% of the total nitrogen input in Chinese agriculture comes from organic sources9 (animal and green manure, garbage, etc.) while only about 63% of the nitrogen input in the U.S. comes from similar sources.10 These figures are remarkable considering that the U.S. produces far more animal manure per acre cultivated and per capita than China (The U.S. produces approximately 1.53 billion metric tons annually). 

Everywhere we went in China we learned of detailed efforts to make maximum use of all possible sources of organic fertilizers. There are several reasons for this effort. First, Chinese agronomists are well aware of the important benefits of organic versus chemical fertilizers. These include preservation of better soil structure. the provision of more trace nutrients. and decreased leaching of soluble nutrients. The latter benefit is particularly important in areas of sporadic but intense rains, and porous soils, in which case most of the inorganic nitrogen can be leached out of the soil before the plants can absorb it. On the other hand, organic fertilizers decay relatively slowly and provide a slow, steady nitrogen input even under conditions of extremely high rainfall. An additional incentive for the extensive use of organic fertilizers is the “re-cycle” ethic which is such a dominant theme in China. One constantly hears the exhortation, apparently originating during the Cultural Revolution, “turn a waste into a treasure.” Finally, China’s abundant labor supply provides the third important ingredient encouraging large-scale use of organic fertilizers. 

The situation in China, however, is changing. For instance, it is predicted that as agricultural mechanization proceeds that the percent of people in the agricultural sector will decrease significantly from the approximately 85% that it is today. In addition, production of chemical fertilizer is sharply rising. A number of extremely large chemical fertilizer plants are now under construction and the Chinese hope to increase production of chemical fertilizer 60% by next year.11 A strong incentive to increase chemical fertilizer use exists since nearly all the organic fertilizer that can be produced, is, and most of the crops still respond dramatically to increased amounts of nitrogen or phosphorous. Considering these changing circumstances, we were thus curious if there were plans to decrease organic fertilizer production. We were familiar with the common argument heard in the U.S. that chemical fertilizer is relatively inexpensive and freely available, organic fertilizer use is frequently uneconomical due to the expense of transportation and spreading. 

Yet the Chinese said they had no plans to reduce the amount of organic fertilizer used and in fact wanted to increase it, while mechanizing the processes of transportation and spreading to the extent possible. It became clear to us that one of the main reasons that extensive use of animal manure has often been uneconomical in the U.S., is due to very large farm size and separation of animal crop production sites. These latter characteristics have little to do with increasing production efficiency per se but instead primarily result from patterns of accumulation inherent in our type of market economy.12 The Chinese agricultural development plan, however, is proceeding differently and will guarantee maintenance of farm size and spatial patterns of animal and plant production that allow for continued use of animal organic fertilizers. 

In addition to animal manures, China makes extensive use of green manure, including both the familiar legume varieties, and other more exotic examples of special relevance to paddy rice production. For example, water hyacinth (Eichhornia) is frequently grown in the canals used to drain rice paddies. Rice paddy production necessarily involves the loss of a considerable amount of soluble nutrients as the fields are drained and flooded several times during one growing cycle. The extensive root system of the water hyacinth traps soluble nutrients and the plants are then composted and later used as fertilizer in the paddies, thus returning the nutrients to the land. Since water hyacinth cannot overwinter in the temperate areas of North China, plants are brought North each spring, thereby making use of this plant available throughout the area where paddy rice is grown. 

Another unusual example of green manure is the water fern, Azolla. These plants have blue-green algae living inside them that can fix free nitrogen. After the rice is harvested, the paddy is flooded and approximately 10% of the area of the paddy is “seeded” with small pieces of the fern. During warm weather, the entire paddy becomes filled with the fern in about seven days. The water is then drained and the fern is plowed under. The fern growing cycle is repeated two more times in succession so that after about 20 days, all the nitrogen removed from the previous rice harvest has been replaced.

The second part of this article will appear in the July/ August issue of SftP, and includes a comparison of pest control and food distribution methods in China nd the U.S. The article concludes with a brief discussion of the possible effects of recent changes in China on the food and agriculture system. 

Mike Hansen, a graduate student in biology at Michigan, and Steve Risch, who teaches biology at Cornell, both do research on biological control of insects, and have been active in the Ann Arbor chapter of Science for the People.  

>> Back to Vol. 11, No. 3<<


  1. Mighell, R., and W. Hoofungle. “Contract production and vertical integration in farming, 1960, 1970.” U.S.D.A. Econ. Research, p. 4.
  2. Hightower, J. (1975) Eat Your Heart Out, Random House Inc., N.Y., pp. 74-75.
  3. Hightower, J. op. cit., p. 76.
  4. Feedstuffs. (Dec. 12, 1970) p. 4.
  5. Hightower, J. op. cit ., p. 199.
  6. FLOC Support Group.
  7. Committee on Scholarly Communications with the People’s Republic of China, National Academy of Sciences (1977) “Insect control in the People’s Republic of China: A Trip Report of the American Insect Control Delegation Submitted to the Committee on Scholarly Communications with the PRC, Report no. 2.” See also the Plant Studies Report published the previous year.
  8. Trenbath, (1974) “Biomass Productivity of Mixtures.” Advances in Agronomy. 26: 177-210. See also: Altieri, M.A., A. van Schoonhoven, and J. Doll. 1977. “The Ecological Role of Weeds in Insect Pest Management Systems: A Review Illustrated by Bean (Phaseolus vulgaris) Cropping System.” PANS. 23(2): 195-205.
  9. Trenbath, (1974) “Biomass Productivity of Mixtures.” Advances in Agronomy. 26: 177-210. See also: Altieri, M.A., A. van Schoonhoven, and J. Doll. 1977. “The Ecological Role of Weeds in Insect Pest Management Systems: A Review Illustrated by Bean (Phaseolus vulgaris) Cropping System.” PANS. 23(2): 195-205.
  10. Estimate provided by D. Pimentel, Dept. of Entomology, Cornell University. Ithaca. NY 14~50.
  11. Tien Sang, (1978) “China speeds up farm mechanization,” China Features, P.O. Box 522, Peking.
  12. Lappe, F.M. and J. Collins with C. Fowler. (1977) Food First, Houghton Mifflin Co ., Boston.