FAO expert: China’s achievements in food security, alleviation of poverty extraordinary
By Matthias Halwart
People's Daily app

File photo provided to People's Daily: Matthias Halwart (left).

Editor's note: Dr. Matthias Halwart is Head of FAO’s Aquaculture Branch. He serves as Technical Secretary of FAO’s Committee on Fisheries’ Sub-Committee on Aquaculture, the only intergovernmental forum dealing with sustainable aquaculture development at global level, and represents FAO as Co-Chair of the forthcoming Fourth Global Conference on Aquaculture. 

It is almost impossible to talk about aquaculture without discussing China’s experience. Over 4,000 years of history and tradition, ongoing adaptation and reinvention, and strong institutional support has allowed China to be the undisputed global leader in aquaculture development. 

Aquaculture in fact originated and evolved millennia ago from food production harmonized with nature, such as integrated rice and fish systems and the culture of four major Chinese carp species in earthen ponds, and it became a traditional farming activity with continuous innovations that opened new opportunities for enhanced social benefits. 

As an aquaculture professional, therefore, I have made many visits to China, and have had the pleasure to help share the lessons learned with people around the world in support of sustainable aquaculture development.

 I first traveled to China in the early 2000s for field work, studying the value of aquatic biodiversity from rice fields for local households and communities of the Dai minority in Xishuangbanna, Yunnan. The people in these communities are predominantly rice farmers, but in addition, they catch aquatic organisms or stock some fish at a small scale – and the monetary and nutritional value of these fish and other aquatic organisms harvested often on a daily basis are extremely important for these local communities, but typically overlooked in development. 

This realization inspired us to do more, “to make the invisible visible”, and to explore various development options with our partners. Indeed, aquatic organisms, such as loach, shrimp, crab, crayfish or softshell turtles, farmed in existing agricultural land without extra expenses needed for the land or the water, can be excellent commodities for the market as they are well liked by the consumer and fetch a good price when sold fresh. As these communities are among the most poor and vulnerable, innovative approaches to conserve this essential aquatic biodiversity and at the same time to upscale fish farming, have resulted in life-changing improvements to their well-being. 

I was blessed with some of my most exciting professional experiences working in these rural and mountainous areas: learning, studying and teaching hand-in-hand with these folks as they make their living farming their terraced fields left me with powerful memories, and in fact I keep a framed poster of our work above my office desk so that I am reminded often.

 China’s achievements in food security and alleviation of poverty are extraordinary, both within the country and around the world. China has lifted more than 800 million people out of poverty, which represents over 70 percent of global poverty reduction. The Chinese government has made poverty alleviation a national priority, promising to wipe out extreme poverty by 2020, ten years earlier than the deadline set by the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and its 17 Sustainable Development Goals. 

The concept of "targeted poverty alleviation" coined by President Xi Jinping in 2013 during his visit to a minority village in Hunan province covers all aspects of human life including improved education, jobs, incomes, social insurance, medical services, cultural life and living conditions, and importantly also addresses the environment. 

Making progress in agricultural development and livelihood diversification while conserving the environment, and enhancing the services it provides, will also be key for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. In FAO, we follow these developments closely, and note the role of innovative agriculture practices and their impact on poverty reduction which has successfully reached poor and vulnerable populations and reduced the number of hungry people.

 Integrated Agriculture and Aquaculture (IAA) is a good model following the principles of environmentally responsible development. The Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs has been promoting rice-fish farming in China, seeing it as a contribution to the targeted poverty alleviation as well as the policy of “one village one product”. 

Following its recognition as a Globally Important Agriculture Heritage System (GIAHS), rice-fish farming has become a significant model in China’s rural areas. It is reported that rice-fish farming now is practiced in about 20 million ha in China, promoting organic rice, fish and their various products, as well as ecological tourism.

 In 2017, in order to promote and share the success story of rice-fish integration for food, poverty alleviation and sustainable development, I was back in China, this time working with local partners on a regional workshop on integrated agriculture aquaculture. Participants from Bangladesh, Indonesia, Lao PDR, Myanmar, Philippines and Viet Nam gathered to discuss and share lessons through meetings and visits to field sites in Honghe County, Yunnan Province. 

The participants at the regional workshop were able to share these lessons, and bring back the experience to their home country. I remember one unforgettable experience at a communal meal at a ‘long table’, shared between indigenous farming families, development experts and government officials where we shared stories and tasted exquisitely prepared food, actually harvested from those same terraced rice fields.

In 2018, during a special Session on Advancing Integrated Agriculture-Aquaculture through Agro-ecology of the World Aquaculture Society in Montpellier, France, I invited a Yunnan local fisheries company working with our Chinese partner, the Freshwater Fisheries Research Center of the Chinese Academy of Fisheries Sciences, to showcase their work in the mountainous terraced fields in Honghe County of Yunnan which has had exciting results in terms of poverty alleviation, production diversification, and better management practices. Engaging rice farmers in fish and frog farming has led to higher incomes, improved livelihoods and cleaner environments.

 In 2018 and 2019, FAO and Shanghai Ocean University jointly organized two international symposia on integrated rice and fish systems. Given the big upscaling potential of these systems beyond China, recent developments and innovations are shared with representatives from other rice-producing countries, also from Africa and Latin America. 

In this context, innovation refers to novel improvements and concepts such as Farmer Field Schools combining the farming of rice with fish on the same land, integrating information and communication technologies into Farmer Field Schools, or recognizing Globally Important Agriculture Heritage Sites. It is in this same spirit that last year we signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Chinese Academy of Fisheries Sciences, and activities will cover a range of systems and farming practices from integrated freshwater to coastal and marine systems.

Along this same vein, China is actively involved in FAO’s Hand-in-Hand Initiative, which is an evidence-based, country-led and country-owned initiative to accelerate agricultural transformation and sustainable rural development to eradicate poverty and end hunger and all forms of malnutrition. 

In doing so, it contributes to attaining all of the Sustainable Development Goals. The initiative prioritizes countries where national capacities and international support are the most limited or where operational challenges, including natural- or man-made crises, are the greatest.

We are also immensely pleased that China, during the last session of FAO’s Committee on Fisheries’ Sub-Committee on Aquaculture, offered to host the Fourth Global Conference on Aquaculture (September 22-27, 2021). Together with the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs and the Network of Aquaculture Centers in Asia-Pacific, FAO looks forward to address the great contribution of aquaculture to food and sustainable development, poverty alleviation, rural livelihood diversification, and harmonization of nature and humankind. 

Sharing of successful Chinese aquaculture development stories and lessons will definitely help shape the vision and attract the interest of the stakeholders from government, business, academia and civil societies. I greatly look forward to returning to Shanghai next year September for the Global Conference on Aquaculture, and to continue working with friends and colleagues in our collective fight for sustainable development, food security and poverty alleviation.

(The opinions expressed in this article reflect those of the author, not neccessarily those of the People's Daily.)