Friedman Gets So Close, and yet Misses the Real Story

In the Hutong
Contemplating sleep
0104 hrs.

Richard, The Peking Duck, has posted Thomas Friedman’s NYT Op-Ed highlighting some of the critical issues facing rural China.

Say what you want about Friedman, he hits on a critical point most of us lifelong urbanites tend to miss: China is destroying farmland not only through urbanization and water pollution, but by outmoded agricultural practices driven by outdated policies. Rural economic reform, the place where Reforming and Opening began, has stalled. In many respects, policymakers have forsaken farmers to build cities and industries.

The issues Friedman touches circle but do not hit on the real story. I don’t think it would be an exaggeration to suggest that we are seeing the early danger signs of a hollowing-out of large chunks of China’s agricultural economy.

Some may suggest this is an inevitable step in modernization, and that’s fair. But I’d look at it another way. If there is a way to keep those farmers who aren’t interested in an urban life on the farm and offer them a way to participate in the kind of growth that China’s secondary and tertiary industries are enjoying, wouldn’t that be a good thing?

Let’s look at it another way. China’s cities are supposed to absorb 10 million rural migrants a year for decades to come. With the end of the Hukou system, that number might well grow. An outright rush to urbanization will bring problems China is unprepared to handle. Why not moderate that rush by creating more opportunities on the farm? Who knows? Apply a little microfinancing and some appropriate technology, and we may wind up with a bit of a green revolution in cash crops.

I’ve been having long talks with Hanya Kim and her beau Sagi over at Netafim about this stuff. Stay tuned for more on agriculture and technology.