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The drought highlights the dangers of climate change for agriculture

By Dr. Michaela Boehme
Dr. Michaela Boehme, Expert for Agricultural and Food Studies China at the Sino-German Agricultural Centre in Beijing

A heat wave of historic proportions is currently afflicting the south and southwest of China. For weeks now, temperatures above the 40-degree mark have plagued people and nature in the central Chinese and southern provinces along the Yangtze River. This is compounded by a severe water shortage in the otherwise high precipitation region. It is the worst drought since record-keeping began in 1961. The longest river, the Yangtze, is at low levels, tributaries such as the Jialing in the metropolis of Chongqing have run dry – and China’s largest freshwater lake, the Poyang in the southern Chinese province of Jiangxi, has dwindled to a quarter of its size.

Agriculture suffers particularly under the effects of the current drought. 2.2 million hectares of arable land in nine provinces along the Yangtze River are hit by crop failures, according to recent media reports. This year’s rice harvest is particularly at risk. 45 percent of the country’s annual rice production comes from drought-affected provinces, according to a statistical analysis by geography professor Gregory Veeck and colleagues.

But even the cultivation of fresh and high-quality agricultural products such as vegetables, tea or peanuts is affected by the high temperatures and the lack of precipitation. Farmers from Zigong and Guangyuan in the province of Sichuan report that they are currently not even able to grow enough food for their own consumption. At present, the only source of fresh food, if at all, is not from their own fields, but from trade.

Geopolitical tensions raise pressure for self-sufficiency

Indirect consequences for agriculture are also to be expected. A sharp decline in hydropower generation in provinces like Sichuan already affects energy-intensive fertilizer production and will likely drive up the cost of agricultural inputs even further. Many other parts of the agricultural value chain also depend on reliable energy supplies. For example, a recent video made by a Sichuan chicken farmer that showed thousands of dead animals dying in the heat drew attention. According to the desperate farmer, power shortages had caused the air conditioning systems in the sheds to fail.

The drought comes at a critical moment for the Chinese leadership. Maximizing the country’s food self-sufficiency is more important than ever in light of geopolitical tensions and the resulting turmoil on international agricultural markets. Although China imports large quantities of oilseeds and grains, most of which are processed into animal feed, the country strives for a high degree of self-sufficiency, particularly in crops for human consumption and the production of meat, fruit and vegetables.

A political response quickly followed. After an emergency meeting on August 22, representatives of four ministries announced a comprehensive package of measures to minimize crop losses in the fall harvest. In addition to the immediate disbursement of aid amounting to ¥300 million, specialist teams dispatched to affected provinces are to help farmers on the ground to save their harvests.

Wake-up call to the consequences of climate change

The focus is above all on the targeted irrigation of affected agricultural areas. After all, many farms in the region do not have any professional irrigation systems due to the usually high precipitation levels in the summer. As a result, many farmers had to watch helplessly as their crops dried up in the fields. Methods to reduce water evaporation and control pests on crops weakened by heat are also at the forefront of current efforts.

Nevertheless, the immediate impact of the drought on China’s food security is estimated to be rather low. Despite the high importance for the rice harvest, the drought-affected areas along the Yangtze River account for only about two percent of the total cultivated area. Particularly in the vast agricultural regions in the north and northeast of the country, good yields are expected this year for the wheat, soybean and corn harvests – with the latter crops serving primarily as animal feed for meat production.

While short-term price spikes for fresh foods such as fruits and vegetables are probably inevitable, possible bottlenecks in the supply of rice could at least be cushioned with the help of China’s huge food reserves. It is estimated that more than half of the world’s grain and rice reserves are stored in Chinese granaries.

The current drought is thus not so much the prelude to an immediate food crisis for China as a wake-up call to take the medium-term effects of climate change on agriculture seriously. Experts agree on one thing: Extreme weather conditions such as these are not an isolated event, but will occur more and more frequently in the future.

New rice types to help solve the situation

The Chinese government is well aware of the consequences of climate change on agriculture, as is evident from the National Strategy for Climate Change Adaptation 2035 announced in June of this year. For example, extensive research on new crop varieties that are better able to cope with heat and drought is currently on the way. Initial successes in cultivating heat-resistant rice varieties have already been reported. The use of “smart agriculture” technologies could also reduce the use of climate-damaging fertilizers and pesticides, while improved early warning systems are intended to minimize crop damage. The expansion of the insurance system to protect farmers against damage caused by extreme weather events, which are often very localized, also plays an important role.

However, a concrete package of measures to implement these goals is still lacking. Financial problems currently also stand in the way of implementing adaptation strategies for agriculture. And not least, it is the holy grail of food security itself that turns the transformation to a climate-resilient and eco-friendly agriculture into a tightrope act. After all, the Chinese government knows that climate measures cannot be implemented at the expense of high production targets.

China’s agriculture is not the only country to face the current challenges posed by climate change. Other countries see themselves confronted with very similar problems, as the German Crop Report 2022 shows, for example. In this way, the current crisis can also be interpreted as an opportunity for more cooperation in the fight against climate change.

Michaela Boehme is an expert at the Sino-German Agricultural Center (DCZ). Her work deals with the transformation of Chinese agricultural policy in the context of global agri-food systems. She earned her Ph.D. from the University of Leipzig with a thesis on China’s transnational land acquisitions.

The Sino-German Agricultural Center (DCZ) was founded in March 2015 as a central contact and information center to coordinate cooperation between Germany and China in the agricultural and food sector. It promotes the exchange between German and Chinese representatives from politics, business and science for a sustainable transformation of agriculture. The DCZ is a joint initiative by the Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture (BMEL) of the Federal Republic of Germany and the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs (MARA) of the People’s Republic of China. On the German side, the DCZ is implemented by IAK Agrar Consulting GmbH Leipzig.


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