Chinese agriculture and America’s role

Kansas Corn and Grain Sorghum communications specialist, DeEtta Bohling recently returned from Northeast China as a delegate on the U.S. Grains Council’s Corn Tour. Through Twitter, she met Meghan Blythe who also just returned from China as a part of Kansas State’s Animal Science program. DeEtta got Meghan’s take on the experience and the lessons she learned agriculture in China.

DB: Meghan, tell me a little about yourself. Agriculture has always been an important part of your life, I assume it will also play a role in your future career?

MB: I grew up on an Angus Cattle Ranch in White City, Kan. Wanting to stay involved in the agriculture industry, I came to Kansas State University to major in Agriculture Economics. With this degree I hope to be a source of objective facts for the agriculture industry and government in the future.

DB: I was introduced to you by your mom on Twitter (@DebbieLB) and was interested in your trip to China, as I recently returned from China as well. You went on behalf of the Animal Science department at K-State University, correct?

The study abroad group

MB: Yes, I embarked on this trip to China along with 15 other students and 2 professors through the Animal Science department at K-State. We spent 12 days abroad visiting Chinese farms and agriculture firms in addition to touring the country.

DB: How does animal agriculture differ in China compared to the United States?

MB: After visiting many Chinese farms, I realized that the American definition of a “farm” was vastly different than the Chinese definition. A farm by U.S. standards is organized, large-scale, and uses production methods based on sound science and efficiency, but the Chinese farms are small-scale, with methods rooted in history and tradition. This mindset took some adjustment. The first beef cattle farm we visited was described as large; however, this feedlot held a total of 1,000 head.

DB: The United States has very strict regulations when it comes to food production. What safety concerns does China have when it comes to food and what precautions do they take?

A man sleeping on the meat counter

MB: The largest shock I got was not from the food or the vast crowds or the pollution, it was the wholesale meat market. The market conditions can only be described in one way… unsanitary. The building that housed the meat market was room temperature, on the verge of being hot, and in the short 5 minutes that I was there I saw vendors sleeping on the meat counters and picking up meat that had fallen in the aisles. Seeing the meat market conditions made me appreciate the safe food supply established in America.

DB: Did you tour any crop fields or have an opportunity to speak to the farmers and ranchers?

MB: While our tour was mainly animal agriculture focuses, we did tour some vegetable patches and greenhouses and drove past many crop fields. In an agriculture museum in Xian (central China), I recognized an old, wooden plow on display. It was a plow designed to be pulled behind oxen like that which I had seen in history books depicting farming methods of the 1800’s. The plaque next to this plow stated that this tool was used in China only 50 years ago in the 1960’s!

DB: In speaking with a hog producer in NE China, he mentioned that hog prices were historically high and that high corn prices were affecting profits. He also said there were concerns for a new foot and mouth disease variants. Did you hear of this in the areas you visited?

MB: In the beef cattle feedlots we visited near Jinan (east central China) the concern of foot and mouth disease was mentioned, but we didn’t really encounter any other incidents.

Meghan (right) and a friend at a beef feedlot

DB: What do you think the future of agriculture looks like for China?

MB: My first exposure to Chinese agriculture was passing a Chinaman herding sheep alongside the freeway just outside Beijing. This encounter exemplifies the dilemma faced by China. As the cities swell with population growth, the traditional agriculture methods will not be able to meet the demand. This strain will present American agriculture with a huge opportunity as China will more than likely rely on the U.S. for food imports.

DB: In the United States we have folks such as PETA and the Humane Society of the United States that promote veganism. Are their groups like this in China?

MB: When asking the manager of a Chinese feedlot about the reason for using a natural (no hormone, no implant) program, he responded that the Chinese people demanded it. He went on to explain that the Chinese people are becoming more concerned about animal welfare and handling practices. While this concern is being voiced, he made no mention of activist groups similar to PETA and HSUS. And from learning that many Chinese agriculture laborers are employed by the government in order to ensure that federal regulations are upheld, I would infer that activist groups are not tolerated in communist China.

DB: What would you like Kansas farmers and ranchers to know about Chinese agriculture?

MB: China is a force to be reckoned with in terms of economics and foreign policy. Their expanding middle class is following the model of the American middle class. They are buying more cars, eating more meat, and moving to the city. Like in America, the number of Chinese agriculture employees has decreased over the past 50 years. One difference remains completely overlooked, and that is that the Chinese agriculture production methods have not evolved (at least not enough) to sustain the growing population. The solution to this challenge will be revealed over time, but I predict it will present a huge opportunity for the American farmers and ranchers.  More than ever the world is going to look to Kansas farmers and ranchers for food.

DB: Animal agriculture is constantly being blamed by animal rights activists and environmentalist. What one thing would you recommend farmers do to improve this issue?

MB: China doesn’t have an issue with special interest groups because the communist government prohibits criticism. In America, activists have the freedom to voice their opinion, and so do you. As farmers and ranchers you have the ability, the right, and the freedom to tell your story to the public and voice your thoughts and views on government regulations. Sometimes it takes a challenge to reveal an opportunity. The challenge of animal rights activists and environmentalist groups has made the consuming public eager for your story. Take advantage of this opportunity.

Follow Meghan on Twitter: @MeghanBlythe 

Check out more of Meghan’s guest blog posts

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