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From Peasant Farms to 100,000-Cow Mega Dairies: The Extremes of Chinese Agriculture

Food production in China is split between vast, industrial operations using the latest technology and small-scale “peasant” farms that employ traditional agricultural practices.
Main image shows a farm in China’s Sichuan province, owned by the New Hope dairy group. Photo by the author.

Two years ago, the world of British farming was shaken by news from the Far East. A Chinese corporation unveiled plans for a farm with 100,000 dairy cows. That was double the US record and 50 times bigger than any in the UK, the rural press squealed.

News on the venture has since gone quiet. But the flare-up showed the drive and scale China is applying to grow food for its 1.4 billion population. Months before the story broke, Dr. Jiao Haopeng drove me out of Chengdu in China's Sichuan province to see a farm his that his dairy company, New Hope, is setting up from scratch.


To keep out infections, our jeep was hosed off on arrival and we put on shell suits, hair nets, and overshoes. The barn was gleaming, with rows of fans to cool the cattle, which are kept inside year-round. The farm's 1,000 heifers had been shipped over from Uruguay, which meant a month at sea and 45 days in quarantine. They eat US-grown alfalfa and hay from Australia. Most of the 45-strong staff at New Hope, including a chef, live on site.

Today, Jiao could be called a mega-farm manager: he runs 13 sites with 21,000 cattle in total, and plans to open a 10,000-cow farm in China's north west by spring 2018. But across the country, food-growing is split between these type of vast, industrial operations using the planet's latest tech, and traditional "peasant" production. The average dairy herd still has just ten cows, according to China's stats bureau.

Dr. Jiao Haopeng. Photo by the author.

"It is totally different," Jiao told me via email after my visit to the farm. "Large-scale farms with modern parlours and management improve milk quality and efficiency dramatically."

Understanding China's odd farming present needs a short history. In Mao Zedong's Great Leap Forward, farmers were forced to collectivise and output plunged. The so-called Great Famine, which spanned from 1959 to 1962, killed 36 million, according to Yang Jisheng's recent book on the subject.

The time remains taboo and deep reforms to food production only started in 1978. The government handed land back to farmers, price controls were stripped away, and tariffs on foreign food were dropped. Investment poured in, and China's countryside became more productive. Grain harvests grew 1.9 percent annually from 1978 to 2014, well ahead of population growth, a paper from China's Centre for Agricultural Policy reported last year. Meat and dairy also began to boom in the 90s.


Because of this, the country became better fed. Almost one in four Chinese were undernourished in 1992, the study found. By 2015, this had fallen to one in ten.

China's sped-up agricultural revolution has come with costs. Water is scarce, due to over-irrigation and pollution; too much fertiliser has poisoned soils; and emissions from cow dung have soared. In the rush for profit, there have also been cases of food adulteration. Six babies died in 2008 after baby formula was tainted with melamine, a chemical that inflates protein content.

But in recent years, the Chinese government has taken steps to mitigate the damage caused by its growing agriculture industry. In 2015, a new Environmental Protection Law overhauled rules untouched in a quarter century and ramped up punishments for businesses that cause excess air pollution or discharge waste into soil and water. And after the melamine scandal, two men were sentenced to death.

At New Hope, Jiao has also made changes. To cope with cow muck, he has built special pipes, storage tanks, and digesters that turn it into organic fertiliser.

"In the past year, lots of farms have been closed because of environmental problems," Jiao wrote. "We have to face it and solve it."

Unsurprisingly, Big Food now wants a piece of China's potential. Western food giants including Arla and Nestlé, and feed firms like Alltech, have set up research labs on the mainland. Meanwhile, exporters fight to fill Chinese stomachs. The country's pork imports more than doubled in 2016, cementing its place as the world's biggest buyer.


"In the past year, lots of Chinese farms have been closed because of environmental problems. We have to face it and solve it."

Most years, British politicians trek to Beijing on trade missions, which led to one much-mocked speech by the current Justice Secretary. All are drawn by China's great, growing appetite, but one food stands out in particular. China eats more than half of the world's pork, with imports of the meat doubling in 2016 and cementing the Chinese as the world's biggest buyers.

Those import figures continue to rise and expand to other products, as China's richer, urban middle class want to splash out on milk, yogurt, and meat. But with demand for fancier foods may come more damaging farming.

"It is a bit like arguments with the Chinese about climate change," says British director Angus Macqueen, who has been filming Chinese pig farms for an upcoming documentary "We [the West] pollute for years and years, and then we want them to stop now we have learned their lessons."

But Macqueen adds that China's new middle class is not oblivious to the impact of its eating habits.

"You have people driving out from towns to villages to buy pork from people that have kept the pig in their back garden. Everything is happening in China, as always, in fast forward."

Welcome to Chinese food week on MUNCHIES! Every day this week, we'll be exploring the stories that make up this diverse cuisine, from mainland China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong to the bustling Chinatowns of major Western cities and the potsticker-filled kitchens of Chinese home cooks living across the world. We hope you're hungry. Click here to read more.