China’s urban sprawl raises key question: can it feed its people?

China's urban sprawl raises key question: can it feed its people?
Building in the city of Hefei next to surrounding fields – as China’s urbanisation continues at breakneck speed, will its agrarian resources be hit? // Photograph © AFP/Getty Images

An hour’s drive south of central Beijing, the city’s squat mid-rise buildings fan out into fields. Ramshackle brick houses stretch on for miles, coal and cabbage piled high by their doorsteps, while sheep graze by the roads. This tiny village called Nanzhuang — about 30 miles south of the Forbidden City — is in for a change. Before long, the government will destroyit and about 10 surrounding villages to build one of the world’s largest airports.

Miles of fields growing corn, wheat, radish and cabbage will be replaced by runways and terminals, railway lines and roads. Officials estimate that the project will be complete by 2018 — still unnamed, the airport will be twice the size of Heathrow and handle up to 72 million passengers per year.

Nanzhuang’s story is in many ways the story of rural China. For the past three decades an onslaught of urban development, desertification, and pollution has been eating away at the country’s once-endless sprawl of tiny farms. For different people this transformation poses different questions. Nanzhuang’s villagers wonder what they’ll do once their fields are under tarmac. The Beijing government wonders how it will keep its citizenry fed.

“You have urbanisation — people travel abroad,” says Susan Chan Shifflett, an expert on China’s food security, from the Wilson Centre in Washington DC. “They go to France, they see cheese, and they think, ‘why can’t I have brie in China?’ They’re changing their diets — meat consumption has quadrupled over the past 30 years.” ….


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