Agriculture continues to be an engine of inclusive and accelerated economic growth, development as well as livelihood security in Asia and the Pacific, a region which supports 55 and 70 per cent of the worlds' total and agricultural population respectively, on less than one fifth of total land (APAARI & PARC, 2013). In this region, there is a rising trend of rural youth moving away from agriculture, and the same is true in China. With accelerating urbanization and industrialization, more and more of rural labour is migrating to urban areas. According to the annual statistics from the National Bureau of Statistics of China (2014), 268.9 million rural labourers, or 35.0 per cent of the total employed labour force, migrated to urban areas in 2013, and about 60 per cent of the migrants were less than 40 years old. Most of those staying back in agriculture are the '386199 Troops'1. A survey (Zhu Qizhen, 2011) in 10 provinces of China revealed that the average age of farmers was 57 in 2010, while another survey asking "who will plant in the next 10 years in your family?" found that almost none of the parents interviewed expect their children to be engaged in farming. The Minister of Agriculture of China, Dr. Han Changfu, has indicated "Most of those who migrate to cities are youth, 84.5 per cent have never been engaged in farming activities, and 93.6 per cent want to live in cities." The question "Who will plant the land?" thus becomes a pertinent and challenging one for national food security, even though China has achieved increases in grain production over 10 consecutive years.
China's agriculture in transition
China sustains 20 per cent of the world's population with only 9 per cent of arable land. With the help of continuous increases in investment in agriculture, the national food security strategy, policy support in 'No.1 central document' - the central Government's annual first policy document, efficient rural institutional reform, and progress in science and technology, China has made great achievements in promoting comprehensive food production capacity and ensuring national food security. Its grain production reached 601.9 million tons in 2013 with an average 3.6 per cent annual increase since 2004. In addition, rural households' per capita net income reached 8,896 CNY (USD 1,4462) in 2013 with over 10 per cent annual growth since 2010. In the backdrop of these achievements, several new features and trends are emerging nowadays in the process of development and modernization of agriculture in China as outlined below.
In China, the level of mechanized land preparation, planting and harvesting reached 59 per cent in 2013. Considering the growing labour cost, the government plans to further subsidize farm machine purchase and quality improvements for farm machines. It is predicted that the level of mechanization will reach 61 per cent in 2014 and agriculture will become an even more machine and technology intensive sector in future.
Land transfer and large scale production
With the progress of mechanization and the migration of rural labour, land transfer and consolidation is promoted and new producer organizations are booming. The 17th National Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC) in 2007 proposed improving the market for land transfers and keeping an optimum scale for farming. Subsequently, the 18th National Congress of CPC encouraged development of various large scale agribusinesses and establishment of a new intensive, specialized, organized and socialized agribusiness system. Farmer Cooperatives, large scale farming, family farming, agricultural entrepreneurship, etc. are booming rapidly. Besides this, China as the world's no.1 producer of meat and poultry will continue to see large scale and standardized livestock and dairy production.
Market oriented production and industrialization
Driven by increasing labour, land and other input costs, together with increasing demand for safe and high quality food, both the government and private sector are accelerating the transition from traditional agriculture to market oriented agriculture integrated with domestic and international markets. Also, the food processing industry is growing very rapidly, food transportation is becoming quicker because of the development of better logistic systems, and food supply and value chains are becoming more efficient.
Multifunctional agriculture Urban agriculture reflects the multifunctional dimension of agriculture including elements such as hydroponics horticulture for eco-friendly offices and home gardening. Life styles are set to change in urban and peri-urban environments, with direct supply of 'organic' vegetables from the city for the city. Production, marketing, and distribution will be integrated and developed as part of a consolidated supply and value chain. Quality standards and branded production and processing will also attract more attention.
E-agriculture and new extension systems
The application of new information and communication technology has the potential to empower farmers and production cooperatives to access technical and market information. 3G-based extension information systems can enhance self-learning for extension agents as well as their information and knowledge base, and provide answers for farmers' questions.
The above trends and features are making agriculture a more market-oriented, technology- and capital-intensive, large scale, integrated, multifunctional and creative sector that is more attractive for innovative youth.
New patterns for youth participation in agriculture
Renewed interest in rural areas
In spite of the current rural-urban migration trends, more and more talented young people who are good at farming and who earn their first fortunes in the cities are shifting their focus to agriculture and going back to rural areas. The Ministry of Agriculture has issued new supporting policies in 2011, such as offers of loans and tax benefits, to facilitate youth to go back to their hometowns to start agriculture-based businesses. Training programmes on practical farming skills and farm management are also provided.
Specialized production and modern logistics
An interesting example is that of Mr. Chen Sheng who graduated from Peking University, and gave up his job as a government officer to build a company to raise pigs. Now his chain has over 700 shops in Guangzhou, Beijing, Shanghai and other cities. The market valuation for his company reached over 4 billion CNY (633 million USD3) in 2012. He epitomizes those youth who have foresight in agriculture-based businesses as well as strong managerial capacity. Many more well-educated graduates are similarly engaged in specialized businesses in the areas of agricultural production or related logistics fields.
Eco-friendly agriculture and tourism
Most poor villages in rural China remain less developed because of adverse natural conditions, especially in mountain areas. Low grain productivity and poor transportation results in low income. However, in the eyes of innovative youth, this disadvantage can be turned into an advantage. Orchards can produce various kinds of organically grown fruits and vegetables. Local farmers can also be involved and can share the added value of eco-friendly agriculture. Besides this, the unpolluted natural environment becomes an asset and a means of generating additional profit through tourism.
Community Support Agriculture
Community Support Agriculture (CSA), as a kind of suburban or urban agriculture, provides a participatory model for people to experience the production, processing and selling of agricultural commodities. This model enriches agricultural education and research and makes agriculture more like a tertiary sector. Students of agriculture in developing CSA in urban China.
The above discussion shows bright prospects for youth engagement in agriculture in China. However, this is just a small part of the bigger picture. There are various challenges for agricultural development as well as specific barriers for youth to engage in agriculture.
Constraints hindering youth engagement in agriculture
The predominance of smallholder farming and the ageing farming labour force are a hindrance to the trend towards integrated, large scale agriculture in China. Farmers lack the ability to resist risks (both natural and market risks) and shocks, while limited application of technological innovation and the low rate of technology transfer constrain the development of modern agriculture, thus continuing to keep agriculture unattractive for youth. Besides, there are some other specific barriers to active engagement of youth in agriculture. Firstly, agriculture in future will be market oriented which calls for agribusiness management capacity and entrepreneurship but current policy initiatives are far from enough and social mindsets need to change for guiding and supporting new businesses. Existing education and training opportunities are also not able to fully equip the youth to meet the intensive technical requirements for modern agriculture. Secondly, current land policy and lack of financial support are constraining growth of modern, large scale agricultural production. While there are some specific incentives offered for youth to return to rural areas and undertake modern modes of agriculture, compared with the risks involved, these incentives are quite limited. Thirdly, the generally low income levels in traditional small scale farming compared to other sectors and unfavourable notions about agriculture related careers result in lack of interest amongst youth in agricultural farming and research. Finally, uncomfortable living conditions in rural areas tend to make youth prefer to live in cities.
Priorities and strategies for enhancing youth engagement in agriculture
Four major steps are suggested for facilitating the participation of youth in agriculture in China.
Firstly, national foresight and a vision for modern agriculture are urgently needed. Among the reasons that youth do not want to work in the agriculture sector is the image of agriculture linked to hard on-farm work under difficult conditions. To attract youth, a clear roadmap for modern agriculture is very much required. In the process for developing such a roadmap, wide consultations with various stakeholders including NGOs and especially marginalized farmers are needed. Most importantly, innovative perspectives contributed by youth should be given high priority.
Secondly, based on the national vision, a clear strategy needs to be then evolved. The government should take the lead in this and develop guidelines or a five-year plan for youth to engage in agriculture. This should be a joint effort. All related ministries, including the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), Ministry of Agriculture (MOA), Ministry of Education (MOE), Ministry of Finance (MOF), Ministry of Commerce (MOC), and Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security (MOHRSS) should join hands with youth associations to work on this strategy.
Thirdly, an effective mechanism is needed at the operational level. Ministries should work together to put in place an efficient support system. The mechanism can be as follows: MOA and Ministry of Science and Technology (MOST) can work on training and extension for farmers; MOE can work on agricultural education; MOC and the Financial System should take the responsibility for effective financial support, especially for credit and agricultural insurance; MOA and MOHRSS on the other hand can work on attaining a balance between urbanization and emergence of the 'new countryside', especially with respect to rural development and provision of a social safety net system.
Finally, a broad based advocacy network needs to be established. Various kinds of media platforms, awards and competitions for youth in agricultural research and development, compilation of success stories, conferences, and other channels can be leveraged to advocate in favour of modern agriculture. Policies which encourage the development of modern agriculture and youth participation in agriculture, and promote sharing of experiences internationally can be widely promoted to establish a conducive social atmosphere for youth participation in agriculture.
(References will be made available upon request)
1 '38' stands for women, '61' for children and '99' for the old. http://baike.baidu.com/link?url=4u-CF7wZI7gzu1A5pkTvbG-faBYqTIeWYp3Dw_90....
2 At 2013 exchange rate of 1 USD = 6.152 CNY