Recently, 15 academicians from the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the Chinese Academy of Engineering submitted a joint letter to the two sessions, urging the central government to take immediate measures to stop people abandoning farm work.
The fundamental problem is that farm work has become less and less attractive due to the low incomes of farmers. The grain shortage in China, the most populous country in the world, will become serious unless the government takes some actions now.
The key measure is to shorten the income gap between farmers and non-agricultural workers. China has strict price controls on grains, including staple foods like rice and wheat. Currently, this policy deters people from sticking to farm work.
Grain prices have risen much slower than the cost of agricultural materials like pesticides and fertilizers. The income gap has been widening as a result.
A couple days ago, I hired two migrant workers to paint my house. In one day, the two each pocketed 700 yuan ($110), which was nearly the yearly income they could get from farming an area of 1.38 mu, the rural average of farmland per capita, at home. Earlier, I also met a taxi driver from northwestern Beijing's Yanqing county. He told me that it would be a "fool" to return to farming work, saying that growing corn on one mu (approx 666 square meters) of land would only make him 250 yuan a year, almost equal to his daily income as a taxi driver.
Middle-aged former farmers might be able to resume farming at some point. But the young will be reluctant to return to the countryside once they have accustomed to the city life. A survey made by the Guangzhou Public Security Bureau of about 80,000 migrant workers in 2009 showed that most of those born in the late 1980s or early 1990s entirely lacked farming skills.
Nevertheless, grain price control is vital to social stability in a country with nearly a quarter of the world's population. Thus, the government can choose to increase subsidies to farmers.
Currently, the subsidies to grain farmers are about 80 yuan ($12.6) per mu, which is too low. For those farmers who have 100 mu or more, the subsidy can be meaningful. But in China, most country residents are small-scale farmers. In my opinion, we should multiply the subsidies.
Many countries have adopted heavy subsidies for farmers. In South Korea, farmers' average income is 80 percent of or nearly equals to that of urban workers. In addition, the grain prices in those countries are much higher than in China.
Some argued that the sense of crisis is unnecessary, as in the US, only two percent of the population is engaged in agricultural production. But the US pattern does not fit China, where the small-scale agricultural operations are dominant. It would be OK if some farmers transferred to other work, but food security will be threatened if most of them leave their farmland uncultivated.
Other solutions include introducing farming studies as part of compulsory education and providing agricultural training to the young rural generation after school. In major grain producers like Henan Province, less than 20 percent of the local students go to college. It's essential to supply skill training that meets local conditions while nurturing their interest in farming.
We have seen that some farmers can make significant revenue with adequate techniques and marketing expertise, such as the strawberry farmers in Beijing's Changping district and the noted greenhouse vegetable farmers in Shandong Province.
I believe that in the future, there will be two major groups of farmers. One specializes in grain output which can meet people's basic demand. The other is professional farmers. Through cooperation and regional coalition, and creating brands, they can sell high-end, green, and healthy agricultural products. But whatever the techniques involved, I think we are likely to need 20 to 30 percent of the population working the land for the foreseeable future.
The article was compiled by Global Times reporter Huang Jingjing based on an interview with Zheng Fengtian, a professor at the School of Agricultural Economics and Rural Development, the Renmin University of China.