As a result of both recent environmental pressures and an expanding urban population, the Chinese diets of southern rice and northern wheat are growing increasingly difficult to satisfy, leading the nation away from self-sufficiency and toward a crippling food and water security crisis. To resolve these pressing issues, the Chinese government collaborated with development experts to explore multiple solutions. A sustainable answer was found in the promotion of the sweet potato as a Chinese staple, in addition to wheat and rice.
Though China possesses only 7% of the world’s agricultural area, with only 12% of the nation’s land being arable, it boasts the largest population on Earth. Hence, according to research done by Lu Chunxia and colleagues, the siren call of China’s rapid economic development has clustered its booming population within its urban areas, drawing farmers from their fields and toward a more profitable labor (359). The sufficiency of Chinese agriculture is thus decreasing, even as the population rises. They further note a significant “northbound shift” and “westward expansion” in Chinese agricultural hubs during recent years (Lu et al. 360). This hints at yet more developmental paradoxes faced by the nation: with drought raging its northern farmlands, urbanization disabling its productive eastern fields, and irrigation efforts expediting water scarcity throughout its inarable and impoverished lands to the west.
While Dr. Lu and her colleagues’ research identifies a correlation between China’s shift to arid farmlands and its growing food security issues, Professor Gu Xihui and his fellow environmental scientists collected data concerning changes in the nation’s precipitation levels. Specifically, intense flooding in the South and extreme drought in the North. The conclusion of their research was that China should set an example in facing climate change by enacting “more measures… [such as] water resources laws… [and] conservancy projects,” in addition to developing technology to help reduce the limitations imposed by “resource shortages” (Gu et al. 503). Studies such as the two mentioned above hold the primary evidence used by development experts and the Chinese government to promote and sanctify the drought and flood resistant sweet potato as the next staple crop of China. Research and legislation, however, can only reach so far.
The Chinese history of sweet potato cultivation is rather intricate. Tied to times of famine and instances of terrible poverty, it is these connections which render the crop—however essential or brilliant a solution it may appear to be—unpalatable and unattractive to most Chinese people. Nevertheless, by understanding the role sweet potatoes have played in alleviating China’s suffering, in addition to acknowledging the crop’s essentialness to the continued prosperity of Chinese society, even the most stubborn of cultural stigmas can be rewritten. It is, therefore, the attachment of the sweet potato to ideas of success, perseverance, and cultural sentiment which will deliberately yet progressively transform it into the solution for growing Chinese socioeconomic concerns.
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