Land degradation among China’s food supply challenges, says UN expert

Olivier De Schutter, UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food

23 December 2010 – While China has made great economic and social progress in recent years, land degradation and the widening income gap between rural and urban are posing challenges to ensuring the right to food for its population, says an independent United Nations human rights expert.

“Within a few decades, China has been able to feed itself and to feed one fifth of the entire world population. That is really impressive. Yet, considering a country’s global agricultural output and the progressive realization of the right to food are two different things,” said Olivier De Schutter, who ended his mission to China today.

“The right to food depends on people having incomes that allow them to purchase food,” noted Mr. De Schutter, the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food.

“It also requires that food systems are sustainable so that satisfying current needs are not at the expense of the country’s ability to meet future needs. It is obvious that these two conditions are facing important challenges today.”

The expert highlighted the “remarkable” economic and social progress made by the world’s most populous nation in the past 30 years, lifting several hundred million people out of poverty and benefiting food security.

“However, the shrinking of arable land and the massive land degradation threatens the ability of the country to maintain current levels of agricultural production, while the widening gap between rural and urban is an important challenge to the right to food of the Chinese population,” he stated.

Since 1997, China has lost 8.2 million hectares (20.2 million acres) of arable land due to urbanization or industrialization, forest replanting programmes, and damage caused by natural disasters.

Today, 37 per cent of China’s total territory suffers from land degradation, and the country’s per capita available land is now 40 per cent of the world average, noted Mr. De Schutter.

“This shrinking of arable land represents a major threat to the ability of China to maintain its current self-sufficiency in grain, and it fuels competition over land and land evictions,” he stated.

The expert added that the recent food price hikes in China are a “harbinger of what may be lying ahead,” while also warning that climate change will cause agricultural productivity to drop by 5 to 10 per cent by 2030 unless mitigation actions are taken.

The widening urban-rural income gap was another concern for the Special Rapporteur, who also covered issues such as land grabbing and the situation of nomadic herders in Western Provinces and Autonomous Regions during his mission.

Mr. De Schutter, who works in an independent and unpaid capacity, will present his full report to the Geneva-based UN Human Rights Council next year.


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