China’s industrial growth has challenged the economic might of the United States, but the country’s advances have not occurred evenly. They have come at the expense of rural development, particularly in regions characterized by unfavorable natural conditions and fragile ecosystems. Although China has attained a high degree of grain sufficiency (about 95 percent) and remains a net food exporter, there are signs of enduring serious problems. Poverty combined with food insecurity and malnutrition continues to affect around 150 million Chinese people, according to recent estimates based on the World Bank poverty line of U.S.$1.25. This has exacerbated the widening gap between the wealthy coastal areas, supported by industrial development, and the impoverished peasants of the northwest and southwest who rely on subsistence production. In addition, agricultural income is generally declining and represents a lower percentage of rural household income; many farmers are losing interest in farming, with women and older people becoming the main agricultural cultivators.
Participatory research conducted in southwest China has resulted in concrete strategies to deal with these challenges. Farmers, led by women, have organized effective local organizations for technology development, seed management, and market linkages, with innovative support from the staff of public research and extension agencies. Collaborative field experiments to improve crop varieties—an approach known as participatory plant breeding—local biodiversity fairs, organic farming practices, new market channels, and new forms of research and policy support are contributing to improved farmer livelihoods and to a more dynamic and equitable process of rural development. Modernizing rural development using traditional and local knowledge stands in stark contrast to the shift to industrialized agriculture in China’s coastal regions. Both approaches will be needed if China is to address the challenges of food security, well-being, sustainable natural resource management, and biodiversity conservation.