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Updated On: Monday, 22 July 2019

Could the Election of Qu Dongyu as FAO´s General-Director be a Turning-point for Sustainable Agricultural Development?

STOCKHOLM / ROME, Jul 1 2019 (IPS) - Agriculture is the bedrock of sedentary human civilization, without it we would have no governments or nations. It was food surplus generated by agriculture that enabled people to live in cities and form regimes able to organize food production in such a manner that some community members could engage in other activities than direct food production and thus give rise to the ideologies, techniques and goods which now constitute and govern our existence.


China’s agricultural output is currently the largest in the world and for thousands of years the intimate connection between nature and agriculture has been an outstanding feature of its culture. A worthy example is the poetry of Du Fu (712 – 770 CE) who wrote about the toils of farming:

Long hoe, long hoe, handle of white wood,
I trust my life to you – you must save me now! 1

Like any other peasant today Du Fu was acutely aware of nature´s capriciousness and the disasters brought about through drought and famine.

Heaven has long withheld its thunder,
is this not a most perverse heavenly command?
No rain moistens the living things,
fertile fields rise into clouds of yellow dust.
Soaring birds die from searing heat,
fish dry up as ponds turn to mud.
A myriad of people wander about, destitute and homeless.
Lifting up one´s eyes reveals a plethora of weeds. 2

Much of Chinese history is characterized by huge efforts to mitigate and harness the forces of nature. Myths tell how agricultural tools and implements were invented, how plants and animals were domesticated. They speak of irrigation, the digging of wells, and the establishment of farmers´ markets. Heroes and emperors are hailed as initiators of such endeavours and often became deified and worshipped as gods, like the legendary Yu, son of Gun, who became the fertility god Shénnóng (神農) The Divine Farmer.3

Even in modern times mortal men have been worshipped as all-knowing, almost divine creatures – like Mao Zedong, whose 1958 Great Leap Forward put land use under closer Government control, causing a catastrophic situation when ecologicallly disastrous campaigns, as the extermination of sparrows, were paired with a ban on private food production and the introduction of harmful agricultural practices, such as widespread deforestation, deep plowing and close cropping, as well as the misuse of poisons and pesticides, resulted in a famine that killed an estimated 14 million individuals.4

However, China learned from such disastrous politics and gradually moved away from a Maoist ”command economy”, which did not allow farmers to determine their economic activities according to the laws of supply and demand. In 1984, about 99 percent of the farming communes had been dismantled and agricultural production returned to individual households. The People’s Republic of China (PRC) now produces one fourth of the world’s grain and with less than 10 percent of world arable land it feeds one fifth of the world’s population. China ranks first in the world in terms of the production of cereals, cotton, fruit, vegetables, meat, poultry, eggs and fishery products. However, China´s population is steadily increasing, while the amount of arable land is declining. The population of PRC is approaching 1,5 billion, the equivalent of almost 20 percent of the earth´s inhabitants. Agriculture employs over 300 million Chinese farmers, while 40 percent of PRC´s citizens live in rural areas. Young people are in a steady stream migrating from rural to urban areas. Mechanization rates are rapidly rising to fill agricultural labour shortage, but even with increased mechanization China will need young farmers to replace those who are aging.5

Acordingly, to feed its incresing population Chinese rulers have realized that apart from increasing their nation´s food poduction, investments have to be made in global agriculture, not the least in Africa. Trade between PRC and Africa did in the 1990s increase by 700 percent and PRC has become Africa’s largest trading partner, supporting agricultural production and food exports in a vast range of developing countries. China is currently building up agricultural exchange and cooperation relations with international agricultural and financing organizations, and is actively involved in agricutural development in more than 140 countries.

This push for international cooperation may be one reason for PRC´s growing interest in the United Nations. When PRC in 1971 replaced Taiwan (the Republic of China) as the Chinese representative to the UN, it did at first keep a low profile. However, after Xi Jinping became China´s main leader PRC has steadily become more visible within the UN system.

In a speech delivered at the UN Office in Geneva, Xi Jinping declared that he did not consider trade protectionism and self-isolation to be beneficient. He described the Paris Agreement as ”a milestone in the history of climate governance” and declared that ”we must ensure this endeavour is not derailed.” Furthermore, he emphasized that the UN is ”at the core of the international system.” 6 Xi Jinping´s speech may be compared to a speech Donald J. Trump gave at the UN General Assembly:

    America is governed by Americans. We reject the ideology of globalism, and we embrace the doctrine of patriotism. Around the world, responsible nations must defend themselves against threats to sovereignty not just from the global governance, but also from other, new forms of coercion and domination.7

The United States remains the largest financial contributor to the UN, providing 22 percent of its budget. However, US support is declining. Already in 2011, the US stopped paying dues to the UNESCO and in October 2017 it officially quit the Organisation. In 2018, the US withdrew from the UN Human Rights Council and ended all funding to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). The Trump administration is currently trying to decrease US funding to several UN agencies. Meanwhile, the People´s Republic of China recently surpassed Japan as the second largest national, economic contributor to the UN. So far, Japan has every year contributed with 10 percent, while PRC now is contributing with 10.8 percent and plans to increase its financial support. 8

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) is in charge of international efforts to improve agriculture, forestry, and fisheries, intending to ensure food security for all and it is thus natural that its activites are of great interest to the biggest food producer of the world. On the 23rd of June, Qu Dongyu was elected Director General of the FAO, becoming the second Chinese citizen to head a UN agency.9 In a recent speech, Qu Dongyu who at that time still was PRC’s vice minister for agriculture and rural affairs, stated that if he became FAO´s Director General he would try to continue the Organisation´s efforts to foment sustainable agriculture, particularly by supporting value chains, tropical agriculture, dryland farming, water management and innovative ITC (Information and Communications Technology). Qu Dongyu stressed that this can only be achieved by the farmers themselves, emphasizing that rural women and youth have to be mobilized, supported and included in all decision making. The last promise may indicate that Qu Dongyu intends to avoid becoming the kind of demi-god that rulers of big organisations often tend to consider themselves to be. Qu Dongyu´s speech might be perceived as the high-flown oratory of any incoming head of a big organization. However, I found one section of his speech particularly reassuring – when he stated that the future of agriculture depends on the experience of the elderly and the capacity of the young:

    When I was a child, my Grandma always took me to pick mushrooms in the neighbouring hills. She told me that we should leave the old mushrooms to spread spores and the young, small ones to grow. This is the only way to ensure that we could have a constant supply of mushrooms within the season. With a strong scientific background, I have always stood by the principle of carefulness, truth-seeking, inclusiveness, and collaboration. 10

The future belongs to the young and we have to prepare and safeguard our world for them. The Swedish environment activist Greta Thunberg became known after she in May 2018 won second-prize in a contest for middle school pupils. They had been asked to write about environmental degradation. Greta called her essay We know – and we can do something now, in it she wrote:

    When you think about the future today, you do not think further than 2050. Then, at best, I have not even lived half my life. What happens next? […] If I become a hundred years old, I will be alive in the year 2103. If I by that time have children and grandchildren they would probably celebrate that day together with me. Maybe we would talk about how things were when I was a child. I would presumably talk about you then. How would you like to be remembered? 11

One answer to Greta´s question could be that eighty-four years ago the election of a new Director General for FAO helped reverse our short-sighted and ruthless exploitation of the Earth and thus contributed to a sustainable management of natural resources, making it possible for her and her grandchildren to enjoy food security and live in harmony with nature.

1 Du Fu (2002) The Selected Poems by Du Fu, translated by Burton Watson. New York: Columbia University Press, p. 71.
2Summer Sigh quoted in Zhang, Yunhua (2018) Insights Into Chinese Agriculture. Singapore: Springer, p. 97.
3 Cf. Yuan Kee (1993) Dragons and Dynasties: An Introduction to Chinese Mythology. London: Penguin Books.
4 Some scholarly estimates are as high as 20 to 43 millions, cf. Dikötter, Frank (2011) Mao´s Great Famine: The History of China´s Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958-1962. London: Bloomsbury.
5http://www.fao.org/china/fao-in-china/china-at-a-glance/en/
6 Xi Jinping (2017) Work Together to Build a Community of Shared Future for Mankind. http://www.xinhuanet.com/english/2017-01/19/c_135994707.htm
7 UN Affairs (2018) US President Trump rejects globalism in speech to UN General Assembly’s annual debate. https://news.un.org/en/story/2018/09/1020472
8 Okano-Heijmans, Maaike and van der Putten, Frans-Paul (2018) A United Nations with Chinese characteristics? The Hague: Clingendael Institute.
9 Li Yong is since 2013 heading United Nations Industrial Devolpment Organization (UNIDO).
10 Dongyu, Qu (2019) Building a Dynamic FAO for a Better World. http://www.ipsnews.net/2019/06/chinese-dg-lead-fao-4-years-1-aug-2019/
11 Thunberg, Greta (2018) ”Greta Thunberg: ´Vi vet – och vi kan göra något nu´,” Svenska Dagbladet, 30 May.

Jan Lundius holds a PhD. on History of Religion from Lund University and has served as a development expert, researcher and advisor at SIDA, UNESCO, FAO and other international organisations.


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