Seeking to improve agricultural yields, China looks back to the basics of the Columbian Exchange

There’s an article today in The Boston Globe on efforts by Chinese agricultural scientists to encourage farmers to plant potatoes as a way to solve a potential crisis in food production for the world’s largest nation.

From the Boston Globe:

In the land of rice, China is looking at an unlikely tool for maintaining growth and social harmony: the potato.

The Chinese government has begun ramping up research, production, and training related to the humble spud, and hopes are high that it could help alleviate poverty and serve as a bulwark against famine.

The challenge of feeding a growing nation on a shrinking supply of arable land while confronting severe water shortages has long been a major concern here. China has to feed one-fifth of the world’s population on one-tenth of its arable land, and the nation’s expanding cities are consuming farmland at breakneck speed. China estimates that by 2030, when its population is expected to level off at roughly 1.5 billion, it will need to produce an additional 100 million tons of food each year.

It’s a story with a long history.

Jishou, Hunan: Dried chilies for sale in the morning market, Summer 2009

Jishou, Hunan: Dried chilies for sale in the morning market, Summer 2009

Beginning in the 16th century, crops from North and South America such as maize, the potato (in both sweet and spud varieties), peanuts, and chili peppers found their way to the fields and tables of China.  It was all part of what historian Alfred Crosby has called “The Columbian Exchange,” by which European exploration brought the relatively isolated New World into contact with the Old.  The result was a sudden collision of previously separate biological and agricultural regimes that had dramatic consequences for world history.  New diseases such as small pox and measles made their way into North and South America with devastating results while new species of domesticated animals (like the horse, cattle, and the pig) led to radical shifts in local cultures of production and the environment.  At the same time, previously unknown crops from the Americas quickly became dietary staples in Europe, Africa, and Asia.

"Stored corn," Simatai Great Wall, October, 2009

"Stored corn," Simatai Great Wall, October, 2009

For China, the introduction of new crops meant a rapid rise in population in the early years following the Manchu conquest.  In 1573, there were about 150 million people in China, a number which dropped precipitously to about 100 million in the chaos of the mid-17th century which led to the Manchu invasion of 1644.*  It took about a century to recover, but by 1767 the population had nearly doubled to 200 million and it would only take an additional 30 years for the population to reach 300 million.  Provincial data also supports this general trend.  While many factors have to be taken into account when looking at something as complex as long term demographic change, the Columbian exchange clearly played a major role in the rapid recovery and subsequent rise of population levels in the early Qing.  

Not only did new crops mean new sources of calories in addition to such staples as rice and wheat, but, as the scientists in the Globe article point out, many of the New World plants, in particular potatoes, can be grown in terrain and in soils which have trouble sustaining viable harvests of wheat or rice.

Potatoes need less water than rice or wheat, and they yield far more calories per acre. In regions of southern China, farmers can squeeze a round of fast-growing potatoes into their rice fields between planting seasons. In some of the poorest parts of arid northern China, potatoes are among the few crops that grow.

“Potatoes have so much potential here,’’ said Xie Kaiyun, a leading potato scientist at the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences, a government think tank.

“Rice, wheat, corn — we’ve gone about as far as we can go with them. But not the potato.’’

Far from increasing social stability however, the shifts in agricultural patterns and accompanying population growth in the High Qing were harbingers of the cataclysmic social upheavals which plagued 19th-century China.   Qing administration struggled to keep up with the booming population growth, resulting in a gradual decline in the ability of the state to deliver services and maintain order.

The adaptability of the new crops allowed settlers to push into areas where conditions had once prevented settled agriculture.  Intrepid colonists moved beyond traditional pales into new regions while other groups began settling in highland areas where they came into contact — and often conflict — with non-Han groups.


Finally, over time even the biological advantage of new crops was insufficient to sustain the exploding population and growing competition for increasingly scarce resources led to famine, hardship, and social instability over the final century of Qing rule.

In this age of H1N1 and tropical fruits for sale in the supermarkets of Boston on a cold January day, it’s interesting to think about just how far back the biological implications of globalization go.

Besides, who can imagine what gongbao jiding would be without those key ingredients of chili peppers and peanuts?


*Population data sourced from Jonathan Spence. The Search for Modern China, (New York: W.W. Norton Company, 1999), p. 79.    Two great books for further exploration of the demographic shifts in 18th-century China, their causes, and social consequences are Philip Huang, The Peasant Economy and Social China in North China (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1985) and, of course, Ping-ti Ho’s flawed but still highly influential seminal work in Studies on the Population of China, 1368-1953 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1959).