Science - September 15, 2005

China needs land reform to modernise

Farmland in China consists largely of very small fields. Land reform is necessary if China is to realise its full potential, says a Chinese PhD candidate.

Farmers in China work an average of half a hectare of land, but this divided among an average of six fields. Machines cannot be used as the network of miniscule fields is linked by footpaths that are too narrow for them. ‘If farmers want to modernise they will have to consolidate their land,’ says PhD graduate Dr Tan Shuhao.

According to the economist, the land has become fragmented as the result of population pressure and the egalitarian principles used by the government to distribute land among farmers. ‘In the time that people did not have enough to eat the principle of equal distribution was very important,’ says Tan. ‘Nowadays though there is enough food and incomes have risen because the economy is growing. The egalitarian principle has now become an obstacle to development.’

Bigger fields would mean that less land is lost to the earthen ridges around the fields. Production costs would decline as farmers would spend less time travelling between different fields, and technical efficiency would increase as fields could be more easily worked using machinery. In addition, consolidation of plots would literally pave the way for modernising agriculture because machines would be able to reach the fields more easily, not only to plough, but also to bring manure to the fields. For this reason, Tan thinks, land reform would also improve soil fertility.

‘Now that we are a member of the WTO we really need to bring our fields up to date so that we can farm in a modern way. Otherwise we will not be able to compete on the world market.’ Tan’s recommendation is to distribute land among farmers in a different way. Farmers should be able to trade in use rights to land, and this would make it possible for them to consolidate the land they farm. She also thinks that more industry should be set up in rural areas. This would create employment opportunities outside agriculture, leaving more land available per farmer. / JT

Dr Tan Shuhao received her PhD on 6 September. Her supervisor was Professor Arie Kuyvenhoven, chair of Development Economics.