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Why Study the Chinese Food System?

The world is now in desperate need of an intensive yet sustainable food production system. Such a system can be constructed on the basis of East Asian insights. For 10,000 years, East Asian peoples have been developing systems that often used resources in relatively sustainable and efficient ways, permitting extremely intensive and productive systems to survive over millennia. East Asian agriculture uses minimal land and resources for maximal production.

One key design feature of that agricultural system—arrived at by trial and error, not by deliberate plan—is the overall purpose of maximizing nutritional adequacy, not maximizing profit or starch or oil or any other single output. This objective has been accomplished by selecting strains of plants and animals that would produce maximum nutrients of all sorts, including vitamins and minerals, with minimum input. The result has been an agricultural system that maintains a great deal of biodiversity, both in the wild and in cultivated crops. Fields, gardens, managed semiwild lands, managed forests, and specialized agricultural landscapes are all part of this integrated system.

The system generally increased its food production capacity by intensifying the latter in place. This required a "biological" development strategy (Ha-yami and Ruttan 1985), in which more and more fertilizer, compost, and land improvement were used, and more and more crop species grown, over time. This requires a concomitant increase in skill and knowledge.

By contrast, the Western world has tended to rely on constantly expanding the range of cultivated landscape. The conquest of the New World and Australia was driven in great measure by the desperate need for more land. This was in large part because of concentration on animal husbandry—especially cattle and sheep—and on relatively low-yield grains, notably wheat and barley. The Chinese, typically, managed to develop high-yield wheat agriculture, and eventually the West did too, but expansion remained the key western developmental idea. Latin America, for instance, was, and continues to be, cleared of natural vegetation—and indigenous people—largely for cattle ranching.

There have been large pockets of intensive, and intensifying, agriculture in the West, for example, Italy throughout much of history, Moorish Andalucía, and northwestern Europe since the 1700s or earlier. China has had its extensive, expanding, low-yield zones, especially on the northwest frontier, where agriculture kept encroaching on the steppes, only to collapse and retreat when dry periods occurred. But the general difference was enough to make Chinese grain yields five times those in most of the West in the early twentieth century: about 2,500 kg/ha versus 500. Comparing, say, Denmark with northern Shaanxi would reverse those figures, but we are still contemplating a real and important difference. It matters for the future: the world has run out of agricultural land, and a collapse inward has begun as more and more land goes out of cultivation due to urbanization and erosion.

Especially intensive and sustainable has been the system that initially developed in southern China—long before it was "China" or "Chinese"—and spread widely throughout eastern Asia and Oceania. Rice paddy agriculture, highly fertilized vegetable plots, tree cropping, and intensive, dryland garden-fields are components. The principal domestic animals—pigs and chickens—did not require the vast expanses of grazing land required by cattle and sheep. Variants of the system exist from northern Japan to southern Indonesia. China has generally been the major site of innovation, but far from the only one.

Such hopeful and creative modern systems as polyculture carry these insights forward today. Traditional Chinese agriculture was far from perfect, but it was incomparably more efficient and environmentally sane than modern industrial agriculture—especially the form currently used in China itself.

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