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Yangtze River Delta, China

Yang Jia, garment worker

Yang Jia harvested rice since she was a child. Three years ago she left the land to make more money in this garment factory.

Today, her ancestral village is practically deserted. Only a few farmers and the elderly remain. Yang Jia's grandmother finds it hard to adjust. She doesn't quite understand why most of the younger people have moved to the city instead of working in the rice fields.

Like most of China's older generation, the villagers do not greet each other with the Western phrase, "How are you?" Instead, the greeting is, "Have you eaten today?"

Clearly, the famine of the early 1960s is still a profound and disturbing memory.

Elderly villagers

China, the world's most populated country is the awakening economic giant of Asia. Emerging from an early morning haze is Shanghai, one of China's largest cities. It's a modern, sprawling, riverside metropolis, where some still cling to the customs of long ago dynasties. Shanghai is a place where past and future intersect.

Over 15 million people choke its streets. Once a modest fishing village, today Shanghai is on the verge of becoming the commercial and financial center of Asia, if not the world. Despite all its possessions, all it's riches, not so very long ago these food stalls were empty; the threat of starvation a daily fact of life. Though many are too young to remember, others cannot forget the horrors of a once well kept secret.

A barge plies Suzhou Creek in Shanghai

A barge plies Suzhou Creek in Shanghai

In 1962, the Cultural Revolution gripped China as angry protesters disrupt the country. Misguided political decisions brought agriculture to a grinding halt. Famine claimed a staggering 30 million lives.

Today, the nightmare of extreme hunger is long gone. Shanghai's markets overflow with fresh produce and once unimaginable luxuries like milk, eggs, and beef. In a sense the abundance of food is both a monument to the country's economic boom and a preview of China in the 21st century.

Video Excerpt: The food stalls of Shanghai are bursting with goods today, but less than four decades ago, the people of China faced starvation. But the land is paying a price for today's abundance. As more land is swallowed up for development, the remaining farmland is intensely cultivated. Land and water resources are beginning to suffer.
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The story of China's agricultural success could very well begin here. Suzhou Creek cuts through the heart of Shanghai. Each day over 2000 barges bring in supplies to sustain a growing and hungry city. It's part of a network of canals that is a lifeline to another world, to an ancient countryside that seems frozen in time. Yet it is here, in this seemingly unremarkable place, that a surprising agricultural drama is unfolding.

The Yangtze River Delta contains China's most fertile soil. On this flat, watery landscape, not far from Shanghai, every available acre of land is under cultivation. The results are remarkable. Since the end of the Cultural Revolution per person food consumption in China has risen by almost 50%. In a country of over a billion and a quarter people, very few go hungry. The land is intensely cultivated and, here in the delta, the yield is two and sometimes three harvests per year.

In return for this fruitful bounty, land and water resources are beginning to suffer. It's not an easy trade-off.

About a dozen people work this small state-owned rice farm. The harvest is over. They are gathering stalks for use as organic fertilizer. Their labor is hard, the hours long and back breaking. There are no tractors, combines, or thrashers here; almost everything is done by hand. Yet these hard working people are a part of a true agricultural miracle. A miracle that feeds 22% of the planet's population with only 7% of the world's arable land.

Worker thrashing rice near Qing Pu

Worker thrashing rice near Qing Pu

Deeper into the Yangtze River Delta fish begin to rival rice as the dominant crop. The villagers of Qing Pu are also finishing their harvest. Fifty ponds, holding five different species, produce 29,000 tons of fish each year. Qing Pu is not unlike tens of thousands of fish farms all over the country. With the harvest completed, the villagers will spend the next few months cleaning their boats and mending their nets and traps.

They also drain their ponds to repair any damage. Their biggest fear is that toxic water will seep into these man-made lagoons. More than half of China's rivers and lakes are seriously contaminated from industrial waste and agricultural run-off.

Thousands of arable acres are being destroyed in the name of progress.

Yet the villagers of Qing Pu are secure with the knowledge that their livelihood is assured because the local government decided to protect the quality of their water. Agricultural and industrial development is not permitted within five miles of their ponds. It's seems like such a logical law. But other less fortunate villages in the Yangtze River Delta have no such regulation.

Thousands of arable acres are being destroyed in the name of progress. Ironically, China's most threatening agricultural problem is its booming industrial growth. Each year China loses about one million acres of farmland to new factories and real estate development. In the past 40 years China's farms have lost a third of their most fertile land, forcing farmers to work the remaining soil even more intensively and increasing the risk of environmental damage.

Each day barges carry the harvests of the Yangtze River Delta to Shanghai. They return loaded with construction materials. Unquestionably, China has chosen industrial growth over agricultural production. Less than a decade ago these streets were surrounded by fertile farmland. They are now home to dozens of small and medium-sized industrial enterprises.

Instead of 3 tons of rice, the yearly harvest is 120,000 pairs of trousers. Almost every worker was lured off the farm. Farming skills, honed year after year, are disappearing along with China's most productive land.

That most are now well-fed is an extraordinary achievement. But losing over a million acres of farmland each year means farmers have to be even more productive. If they fail, massive amounts of food will have to be imported. It's a possibility that's already having a major impact around the world — even on the lives of the farmers bound to the rich, black soil of Iowa.



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