The author, activist Michael Pollan (who I’ve flagged herein more than once, as I consider him a really hugely important writer about food and the politics of food) has said:
“Cheap food is always popular among political leaders because expensive food leads to revolution … keeping food cheap is appealing to powerful interests in society. This will not change until the true costs of that cheap food are accounted for, like healthcare, diet-related diseases & environmental costs. The falling price of food is the reason Americans have tolerated falling wages since the 1970s”
He flagged The Little Donkey Farm outside Beijing to my attention when talking in Fool Magazine #2 about the way food production in China is changing, as it competes hard with the West and as its rising middle-class tastes aspire to eating and living the same way.
China continues to grapple with a daunting problem: how can they feed nearly one-fifth of the world’s population with less than one-tenth of its farmland, all the while encompassing these changing tastes. Thirty years ago, only around ¼ of the population were urbananites; now over 60 percent of the population live in the cities, in a China that is wealthier and more technologically advanced, with a diet that increasingly resembles that of the West. Where they now eat nearly three times as much meat as in 1990. Consumption of milk and dairy quadrupled from 1995 to 2010 among urban residents and nearly sextupled among rural ones. And China now buys far more processed foods, increasing by about two-thirds in less than a decade, from 2008 to 2016.
China does now have some of the largest, most automated and industrialised farms in the world, dwarfing those seen (& rightly vilified for their terrible treatment of the animals) in places like the US and yet they have a major problem with the way that their farms are setup. They’ve a farming tradition stretching over the 334 million acres of arable land, one that’s existed for four millennia. They have over 1.4 billion people to feed, but these giant farms that fuel Western diets are far harder to replicate here. Partly, because much of the terrain is desert or mountains but also, importantly, because the farmland is split amongst around 200 million farmers. China’s agricultural landscape looks less like a monoculture blanket of green than a patchwork quilt. One that they’re finding hard to unravel…
And this leads us directly to this farm. It’s one of many efforts being tried in attempt to square this apparently insoluble triangle. It’s the first Chinese Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farm where four hundred families pay an annual membership fee and get — in exchange — a weekly share of the fresh harvest. Another 260-odd families also rent small plots of land, for their own garden.
This PDF has more background and is worth your while taking a few minutes to read it.
They have pigs there. Not in a huge indoor factory, but outside — under cover, in pens — wallowing and digging around in very deep bedding made of rice bran & straw which is, crucially, inoculated with various fermented liquid bacteria. This means that their waste is broken down incredibly quickly — which means no smells — and with no need to turn it as the pigs do that themselves. Every couple of years the bedding is swapped out and used as fertiliser on the fields.
Rice bran is a whole fascinating new subject which I’m reading avidly about; more words on that here soon. Starting with nukazuke or fermented vegetables. Chef Tom Hunt has an explainer piece here.
© Tom Hunt/Guardian 2021
And the piece title? A donkey called “Professor” became their mascot; they’d intended using it to help cultivate the land — rather than using tractors — but, at least at the beginning, realised they had no one with any experience of harnessing a donkey to a plough, so it spent most of its time grazing. And fertilising.