Monday, November 30, 2020

Pig Farms Compete for China's Cropland

Plans to build pig farms on cropland to alleviate China's meat shortage highlight mounting conflicts in a resource-poor food system. Earlier this year pig-farming giant Muyuan Group announced aggressive plans to build 84 industrialized pig farms in 13 counties surrounding its headquarters in Nanyang, a city in the hinterland of Henan Province. The plan stirred up controversy because 55 of the pig farms would be built on 1,000 hectares (2,500 acres) of "permanent cropland" designated by the government for producing grain crops. 

In 2019, Muyuan produced over 10 million swine--making it China's largest pig producer. Its sales of hogs, feeder pigs, and breeding stock reached nearly 12 million head in the first nine months of 2020. Only 6 of Muyuan's 90 branch companies are located in Nanyang, according to the company's semi-annual report. This month, Muyuan announced projects in counties of Anhui, Hubei, and Liaoning Provinces.

In late August, state media's "Voice of China" broadcast called attention to Muyuan's plan to build pig barns and manure pits on cropland. Muyuan and local Nanyang officials took advantage of a December 2019 document issued by the Ministry of Natural Resources and the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs that loosened prohibitions in China's land law on unauthorized construction or changes in use of "permanent cropland." The December document permitted projects where use of such land is "unavoidable," only if "small" amounts are used, and if the lost land is offset by additions of new parcels of permanent farmland created elsewhere. The broadcast noted that there is wiggle room in the law's implementation. Rural land law experts consulted by Voice of China offered differing opinions on whether using "permanent cropland' for pig farms was a reasonable exception to the strictures on converting cropland to a different use. 

Construction of a Muyuan pig farm on "permanent cropland."

Local Nanyang authorities interpreted the "small" requirement by allowing projects to use no more than 30% of the permanent farmland base. Muyuan Group and Nanyang officials launched the pig farm investment project after the December policy adjustment, keeping the planned use of "permanent farmland" under the 30% cap. 

A year ago--with pork prices up more than 100% from the previous year--rural officials were ordered to prioritize construction of pig farms, with a goal of restoring normal pork production capacity by the end of 2020. Most farms are built by private companies, but they need land tightly controlled by township and village officials. Local leaders were ordered to hasten approval of applications to use village "construction land" for pig farms, but there was no mention of whether cropland could be used. In January 2020, the communist party's "Number 1 Document" called for improvements in rural land use policy and repeated the ambitious goal of restoring normal pork production capacity by year-end.

A completed Muyuan farm.

Another article reported opposition from villagers in Nanyang whose land had been requisitioned for Muyuan pig farms. Farmers complained that the rent was too low and that they had no say in the decision to lease their land to Muyuan. A villager named Yang said he refused to sign the agreement that would lease his entire 5.4-mu (less than an acre) land holding to the pig farm project because he would have no source of food grain and the 800-yuan annual rent is less than he makes growing peanuts and wheat on the land. The reporter claimed that 24 of the 64 families in Yang's village refused to sign the agreement to lease 500 mu of land for a pig farm. According to this article, justification for the Muyuan project was based on its addition of pork supplies, creation of 10,000 jobs, stimulation of activity in other sectors, strengthening of Muyuan's brand, and its potential to burnish Nanyang's image as a prosperous and important city. The city's deputy communist party secretary defended the project.

Group photo in front of Muyuan's headquarters in Nanyang.
The site also features what appears to be a replica of the Louvre.

A Peoples Daily opinion piece appearing several days after the "Voice of China" story condemned the use of "permanent" farmland to build pig farms. The author asserted that Chinese people should not have to sacrifice rice to fill their bowls with pork. A number of online videos warned readers that they may have to choose between going without pork or going without rice.

On November 4, 2020, the State Council issued an "Opinion on preventing 'non-grain-ization' of cultivated land to stabilize grain production." The opinion warned that grain production could be destabilized by planting fruit trees and digging fish ponds on permanent cropland or transferring large parcels of cropland to investors planting non-grain crops. The document forbade construction of structures like greenhouses and livestock facilities on cropland in designated "functional grain-producing areas." Policy has traditionally encouraged use of "waste" land on mountains, gullies or swamps, and land designated for forestry to construct pig farms.

Sign in Nanyang's Xinye County explains that 332.73 hectares of permanent cropland in Nanwang village cannot be used for nonagricultural purposes, cannot be converted to forest, fruit trees, or grass, and cannot be used for fish ponds or livestock farming. The village head is responsible for protecting the land. 

The strictures on construction of greenhouses are surely a response to another abuse of agricultural land use policy two years ago: widespread construction of vacation homes, restaurants and hotels inside greenhouses posing as "vegetable production bases." 

Officials in China have long pretended that the magic of "modernizing" subsistence peasant agriculture could achieve greater production without sacrifices or tradeoffs. In the past, most of China's 700 million pigs were tucked away in small pens and sheds in backyards, courtyards, the ground floor of residences, and strips of unused land on river banks or the edge of fields. Muyuan's industrialized swine farms cannot be tucked away in the nooks and crannies of the countryside.

Another company chopped off the top of a mountain and built a pig farm on top.

National priorities like "food security" and "red lines" on use of farmland inevitably clash with other priorities like alleviating meat shortages. Local interests--like building up the country's biggest pig farming company and promoting the fortunes of a small city--take precedence over dictates from Beijing. Policies crafted in Beijing still need to be negotiated. The hills are still high and the emperor is still pretty far away, illustrating the challenges to imposing "rule by law" in the hinterland.

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