China’s farmers are making moderate progress in adopting farming methods to climate change

Rating B (Moderate Progress)

China’s agricultural landscape is as diverse as one can imagine: Lush mango plantations and pineapple fields stretch across Hainan Island. Shimmering rice terraces dominate the landscapes of Guangxi and Yunnan in the South, fields of wheat those in Sichuan – China’s “breadbasket” in the Southwest – and Henan in the center. Water-filled rice paddies and peach orchards around Shanghai make way for the tea-growing slopes of Zhejiang. In contrast, apple orchards in Shanxi slowly change into vegetable fields and – of recent development – the vineyards of Shandong. In the far North, Heilongjiang’s maize fields stretch West and then change to melon fields from Inner Mongolia into Xinjiang. And again here, vineyards appear as grape farming and winemaking have a longer tradition in Xinjiang than elsewhere in China. The difference with Shandong is that Xinjiang grapes have to contend with much less water and more sunshine in this arid region, while water is more abundant in verdant Shandong.

Much of all that grain, cereal, fruit, and vegetable is grown by smallholding farmers, of which there are some 200 million in China. On average, they own and work a land area of less than 3 hectares. Large producers exist, but many of them are geared to export, e.g., mushrooms or tomatoes. The average smallholding farmer is elderly, with the average age hovering around 60, and many in the younger generation prefer to move to cities and find work there.

Until today, farmers are growing crops with traditional methods, much manual work, and according to the suitability of a crop to local climate and soil. For example, drought-resistant maize and hardy honeydew melons grow in the dry and arid conditions of Heilongjiang and Inner Mongolia. While tropical fruit, yams, or rice grow well in the heat and humidity of the tropical and subtropical South. And in the plains between the Yellow and the Yangzi Rivers, wheat growers never have to worry about water.

But things are noticeably changing. Freak weather patterns like torrential rains in arid areas, early onsets of frosts, and droughts in water-rich areas all turn traditional farming patterns upside down. The absence of rain in spring and torrential rains during the usually dry summer months upset honeydew melon crops in Inner Mongolia. Extreme droughts in the North leave even the most drought-resistant maize stunted. At the same time, droughts in Sichuan and along the Yangzi River basin are affecting wheat crops. Changing weather patterns also bring pests and diseases to areas that have not had issues with insects or mildew before. This is increasingly threatening China’s future food security, with studies saying that droughts could reduce maize, wheat, and rice yields by 8% by 2030.

Chinese farmers have, in recent years, started to adjust to the changes. In Inner Mongolia, honeydew melons are now being planted in staggered batches to mature at different stages and ensure that some crops make it through funny weather patterns. And millet is now being planted earlier to ensure that millet is ripe for harvesting before October when early frosts surprised farmers and destroyed crops in recent years. In the south, traditional rice growing methods in which the rice fields are inundated with water are changing to use varieties that need less water. The seedlings are planted on piled-up earth ridges, and only the furrows will be filled with water. This not only saves water, but it also holds the potential to cut Greenhouse Gas emissions from rice cultivation.  Traditional rice cultivation, where the whole paddy is flooded with water, is causing 16% of China’s largest GHG emissions from agriculture. Methane forms as a waste product when certain microorganisms feed on the nutrients of plant roots and the soil under anaerobic conditions created by a constant layer of water. Therefore, several programs are looking at ways to cultivate rice with less water to reduce the amount of GHGs.

Other coping strategies include moving crop farming and livestock breeding indoors. The government has requested that farmers grow 40 % of vegetables in greenhouses by 2030, up from 30%. A similar appeal exists for raising livestock indoors: pigs fatten up more slowly, cows produce less milk, and chickens lay fewer eggs. All of them are also at greater risk of dying.

But these measures come at a price. Farmers are reported to spend around 20 – 40% of their annual income to try out new farming methods or invest in new infrastructure or alternative crops. This portion may reach as high as 60% – 80% of annual income in some particularly affected areas. This is estimated to total up to 280 billion US$ per year.

And here is where a lot of farmers can be improved. Studies have shown that the ability of farmers to adapt their farming habits to climate change hinges to a large extent on information, knowledge, and access to capital and credit. While some farmers rely on intrinsic traditional knowledge, observation, and creativity to change planting patterns or crops, others lack this knowledge and access to modified seeds or infrastructure. Hence, while the ability of China’s farmers to adapt to climate change has made moderate progress, more has to be done to help them transition. Policies such as targeted subsidies, early disaster warning systems, information, access to credit, or improved infrastructure to avoid disruptions of market operations should be among a set of measures.

This Post was submitted by Climate Scorecard Country Manager China Annette Wiedenbach.


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