U.N. Food Official Highlights Food Security Challenges In World’s Most Populous Nation

U.N. Special Rapporteur on the right to food Olivier De Schutter said Thursday that recent food price spikes in China, “in the world’s most populous nation,” underscore the country’s food security challenges resulting from decreasing amounts of arable land, Agence France-Presse reports. Significant land degradation is also hindering China’s agricultural output, De Schutter said as he wrapped up a visit to China. “The recent food price hikes in China are a harbinger of what may be lying ahead,” he said in a statement. “This situation should encourage China to move towards more sustainable types of farming,” De Schutter added (12/23).

In an interview with the Guardian, De Schutter highlighted declining soil quality – caused by the excessive use of fertilisers, pollution and drought – as a major concern. “He noted that 37% of the nation’s territory was degraded and 8.2m hectares (20.7m acres) of arable land has been lost since 1997 to cities, industrial parks, natural disasters and forestry programmes. Further pressure has come from an increasingly carnivorous diet, which has meant more grain is needed to feed livestock. The combination of these factors is driving up food inflation,” the Guardian writes. “This is not a one-off event. The causes are structural,” De Schutter said. He said the “widening gap between rural and urban” populations is an “important challenge to the right to food of the Chinese population” (Watts, 12/23).

But De Schutter also praised China’s “remarkable progress” in expanding its ability to feed its people over the last few decades, the Associated Press reports. “China shifted from a food aid recipient to a international food donor in 2005, a sign of its “significant success” in coordinating and helping small-scale farmers boost productivity, said Olivier De Schutter,” the news service writes. “It is quite remarkable that this country, despite the restraints it is facing, is able to feed itself and has achieved such a high level of self sufficiency in grain production,” he said (12/23).

De Schutter also expressed concern over China’s treatment of whistle-blowers that highlight food safety issues, the BBC reports. He “said the state’s actions had ‘a chilling effect’ on others worried about violations. He said the Chinese authorities seemed to underestimate the contribution that free expression and association could make to the right to adequate food,” the news service writes (12/23). “His preliminary report [.pdf] summarizing his observations and recommendations encouraged China to boost transparency and access to information to help combat its food safety problems,” the AP reports. “His report also urged less use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides that are polluting the environment and that legal protections for small farmers be stronger. Small farms in China sometimes are taken away by corrupt officials and land developers,” according to the news service (12/23).

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