Photo diary: a story of sustainability in China

Video transcript

Video shows a collection of farming, village and city landscape photos in China.

Voice of Geoff Tansey, food writer and consultant
Will China build on its long-term sustainable farming systems, such as these famous rice terraces in Yunnan, or abandon them?

That’s the question I’ve found myself pondering about since my most recent visit to China.

As you can see in these pictures, for many visitors to China it’s the gleaming new city centres, glitzy shopping malls and swathes of high-rise apartments that impress.

Far away from the urban traffic, however, are the many rural communities producing food that feed these rapidly growing cities. This time I travelled to the terraces running up the huge and steep mountainous country in the upper reaches of the Yangzi River, around 100km north from Lijiang in northwest Yunnan.

The stone village of Baoshan is occupied by the Naxi people, a long-established ethic group with a strong philosophy of maintaining harmony with their environment.

There I met with farmers who are working to improve their farming systems and resilience of their communities.

The village has been there and the terraces farmed for about 1400 years. Over the centuries the farmers have developed a sophisticated, irrigated terraced system in which they can direct water to any particular terrace.

Today they are largely growing maize, not rice on the terraces. This is due to migration of young men and women to the cities, and also because of a more uncertain climate, which makes rice growing a less viable option. Now much of the growing is done by older people, and women with children.

I was there along with a group of students from Lancaster University and Yiching Songrom, here with the camera and holding a maize cob, from the Chinese Centre for Agricultural Policy in Beijing, and a maize breeder from the Guangxi Maize Research Institute.

Yiching and her colleagues have been working for years in a number of areas in South West China with a range of ethic groups to help improve their livelihoods through farming – including through participatory plant breeding. On this visit the professional breeder works with a few farmers to show them how to develop locally adapted hybrid maize – something already successfully done in the neighbouring provinces of Guangxi.

These are the areas where the land has been successfully and sustainably farmed for millennia. But it is a hard life.

Is this work, in these stunning but difficult areas, something that the Chinese will seek to build on and support, or slowly let them wither?

What will happen if China follows Britain’s approach in the 19th Century and seeks to import cheap food from around the world to feed its booming urban population? Will villages become depopulated and land abandoned for farming, as in southern France towards the end of the last century?

The answers will have huge consequences, not just for China and the sustainability of its domestic food supply, but for the rest of the world. If it, like Europe, seeks to use -lands elsewhere to feed itself and adopts more Western consumption patterns of higher meat and dairy intake, then both the health of its people, and the global environment will be adversely affected.

The challenge is to build on and support these many millions of people living in these areas, producing food for themselves and the country, so they have better and easier lives.

I think to let the huge investment in knowledge, skills and labour that has created these long-term sustainable farming systems disappear, and see these lands depopulate will be bad not just for China, but for the world.



This video may be reproduced in its entirety with due credit to the Global Food Security programme.

  • All photos (c) Geoff Tansey unless otherwise stated.
  • Music: ‘Beacon’ and ‘Prairie’ from Cinephonix.

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