19 July 2019

Urbanization and food security: Getting the balance right

Reckless city expansion and new town developments across China have been putting Beijing’s food security mission to severe test in recent years. While urbanization is an important task, authorities have also clearly laid out a bottom line that the country needs at least 1.8 billion acres of farmland to cater to the food needs of its 1.3 billion people.

Former Premier Wen Jiabao {溫家寶} reiterated the point on several occasions, but the truth is that the appeal usually fell on deaf ears as local authorities were focused more on boosting their fiscal revenues through land sales to property developers.

As land grabs had fueled resentment among the peasantry, officials sought to smoothen the path by offering more compensation. That has, in some places, now led to a situation where the peasants would rather let their land lie idle, than plant any crop, waiting for government appropriation. The reason: the farmers feel it is more worthwhile to take the compensation rather than cultivate the land which offers no attractive return.

Cadres in the coastal areas often ask developers to build around farmland to create new towns. They expect their counterparts in the central and western provinces to help produce more grain, but the efforts are not succeeding as major agricultural provinces like Henan, Heilongjiang, Hunan and Shandong are also treading the same path to bolster their land income. Given this situation, Wen’s successor Li Keqiang {李克强} had to take a tougher line.

State news agency Xinhua reported in January that Li has ordered the Ministry of Land and Resources to draft new rules to preserve arable land and delineate boundaries of urban construction and development for cities with a population of 5 million or more. The ministry revealed earlier that around 50 million acres of farmland was illegally occupied in the past three years and no longer arable.

At the National People’s Congress (NPC) plenum that opened in Beijing Wednesday, Land and Resources Minister Jiang Daming {姜大明} said the ministry will begin to designate permanent agricultural land in the suburban areas of major cities, meaning new town expansion can no longer go beyond these boundaries — a de facto halt to new land supply. Three predominant coastal areas — the Beijing-Tianjin economic rim, Yangtze River Delta and Pearl River Delta — got special mention.

On top of that, Jiang also revealed that the existing 1.8 billion acres of farmland will be included in the permanent agricultural land scheme after a nationwide land survey that is expected to conclude in three years. After that, application to use the land for non-agricultural purposes can only be lodged to the State Council and the NPC’s Agriculture and Rural Affairs Committee.

Yet the three-year grace period, ironically, seems to be an invitation to local authorities to speed up their farmland rezoning and sales activities.

Indeed, some cities have continued with their land sales frenzy this year — Hangzhou, for instance, auctioned 34 billion yuan (US$5.54 billion) worth of plots in January, setting a new monthly record. Adding up the February sales, the city’s land revenue has already reached almost half of last year’s volume. Like anywhere else, most of the plots sold there were suburban farmland rezoned in the name of new town development.

Guangzhou’s aggressive expansion last month that turned two counties under its jurisdiction — Conghua {從化} and Zengcheng {增城} that are known for local produce like rice and lychees — into its new urban districts is also seen by some observers as a move that defies central authorities’ mandate.

The Economic Observer reports that Conghua and Zengcheng have chunks of farmland that could apparently be the future source of supply for Guangzhou which has been suffering from land scarcity for years. The city’s plan to swallow the two counties was reportedly called off by the Ministry of Land and Resources in 2005, but media reports cited Guangzhou communist party chief Wan Qingliang {萬慶良} as saying recently that he made several lobbying trips to Beijing and that the plan has finally been given the green light.

No exact figure is available as to how many other cities are also applying to expand their urban areas but Guangzhou’s success after the announcement of tighter farmland protection can definitely be a morale booster for them. The central leadership’s call to expedite urbanization can also help legitimize their demands. Meanwhile, at the central level, the Ministry of Land and Resources will have to steer a careful course to avoid collision with the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development, which is crafting incentives under the urbanization mandate.

– Contact the writer at [email protected]


EJ Insight writer

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