National Geographic : 2018 Feb
Feeding china 91 WalKing the length oF a coW barn and processing plant at Modern Farming’s Beng- bu Farm in Anhui Province, the largest dairy farm in China, took me almost five minutes. It was dim and cool, and there was a sweet smell, half animal and half decay, that wasn’t quite unpleasant. The cows, black-and-white mottled Holsteins, were quiet. They poked their heads through slotted metal fencing to reach feed along the concrete walkway and eyed me, a white-clad interloper in sterile coveralls, galoshes, bonnet, and face mask, with mild interest. The farm, nearly 600 acres, has eight enormous barns built to hold 2,880 milking cows each. Other barns and sheds hold calves and pregnant cows, putting the farm’s maximum bovine population at 40,000, among the largest in the world. Part of industri- al agriculture’s allure is the sheer scale of it, and China has succumbed to this as it has expanded its meat and dairy production. China has always prized pork in its diet, and hogs were tradition- ally raised—and slaughtered—in backyard plots; as recently as 2001, farms with more than 50 hogs made up just a quarter of the market. By 2015 an estimated three-fourths of China’s hogs were being produced on such farms. An expanding appetite for poultry and eggs also has been an- swered by industrial farms. But perhaps the most surprising industrialization has been at dairy farms like the one I visited in Bengbu. Tradition- al production had been household based, as hogs were, but after a 2008 food-safety scandal involv- ing fatally contaminated infant formula, China pushed the industry to modernize. In 2008 near- ly one in six dairy farms held 200 or more cows. By 2013 more than one in three did. It’s difficult to overstate the importance of food safety to Chinese consumers. Besides fatal levels of melamine in baby formula, scandals have included long beans treated with a banned pesticide and adulterated fox meat passed off as donkey. A 2016 McKinsey & Company study found that nearly three-quarters of Chinese cus- tomers worry that the food they eat is harmful to their health. The vast number of small farms makes China’s food system “almost completely unmanageable in terms of food safety,” says Scott Rozelle, an expert on rural China at Stanford Uni- versity. Industrial dairies and slaughterhouses make traceability and accountability for quality possible, and this is something Chinese consum- ers want. Indeed a colloquial phrase traditionally used to describe being at ease, “Put your heart down,” has been repurposed. Farmers repeatedly assured me that I could put my heart down with their food; it was, in other words, safe to enjoy. At Modern Farming’s dairy, officials intro- duced me to an employee, Zhang Yunjun, whose family home had been where the offices now stand. The Bengbu farm displaced about a hun- dred villagers, and the government moved them a little way down the road. People in the village cooperated willingly when officials promised jobs at the dairy, new housing, and regular in- creases to the rental fee for their land. Before the dairy Zhang had worked about six acres with two relatives, growing peanuts and wheat. Now 55, he tends to bedding in the barns and earns more than twice what he did farming. “People are very happy,” he says. “It was really hard working as a farmer. Now I can make much more.” Nearly every proponent of large-scale farms told me some version of this story, saying that big farms are effective solutions to poverty in rural areas. Farmers, the thinking goes, can work for the big farm and rent out their land, earning two incomes at once. But the reality doesn’t always match the sales pitch. “ They do employ people, but it’s very limited,” says Ye Jingzhong, a rural sociologist at China Agricultural University in Beijing. “If they want to make a profit, the first thing they want to cut is the labor employment. And they can only employ a very limited amount of low-paid farmworkers.” As the sun began to set, I visited the displaced villagers and found their enthusiasm for the dairy much thinner than Zhang’s. They live in a gridded SYSTEM OF SMALL FARMS.